New Beginnings

Adrian Sullivan introduces himself to the Select audience and writes why it might be time for Esper Control to make a comeback this weekend at #SCGORL.

Hello everyone! For many of you, it’s possible that this is your first time reading my work. For others, you may have been reading me for as many as seventeen years now. In addition to writing for StarCityGames.com*, I both wrote for and edited the granddaddy of Magic strategy sites, The Dojo, and used to have a column for Wizards of the Coast, and I’ve done coverage work for both Wizards and SCG. There are a lot of excellent changes coming down the pipeline in all aspects of StarCityGames.com, so you can look forward to big things this year. One of those changes includes bringing me to the larger audience of Select, and I’m excited to be introducing myself to those of you who haven’t read my work.

If you’re like me and are playing as much tournament Magic as you can get your hands on, you probably watched as much of the premiere of this year’s SCGLive as you could. Most of Saturday I had it on in the background as I went about my various tasks around the house, basically treating the coverage like a radio program that I could rush over to and watch the action when listening wasn’t enough.

I feel like we’ve had a pretty long break from high-profile Standard events despite Grand Prix Shizuoka being only a few weeks ago. One of the things that has gotten pretty incredible about organized play in Magic in recent times is the sheer immensity of just how many events are happening these days. It’s just a sign of how far Magic has come that we can start thinking of "a few weeks" without an event as appallingly little Magic compared to what we’re used to.

The most recent major Magic event took place just as winter came upon the land in Indianapolis. The top decks of this event were mostly unsurprising, with nothing particularly new to make much comment on. Even the winner, Owen Turtenwald, showed up with a deck only barely different than what he had played and talked about recently.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking with this list. It is just a beautiful distillation of what we’ve seen succeed in the past with some care given to maximizing the strengths of the deck. It’s almost shocking to think that in the aftermath of Louisville we hadn’t even gotten to the point of having four Pack Rats and before that we hadn’t even seen Nightveil Specter as a common enemy in Standard. Even the choice of 26 lands is pretty fabulous, as Pack Rat both demands land and lets you run a bit too many much more safely by turning every land into another potential Pack Rat.

Owen’s list chooses all of the strongest cards and even manages the neat trick of "cheating" in sideboarding by running an effective seventeen-card sideboard by maindecking two Pharika’s Cures as kind of fifth and sixth Devour Fleshes. I don’t think this strategy would work if the Cures weren’t also analogs to cards that Turtenwald already wanted to be playing.

If you think of yourself as a good player, this list is a great one to choose to PTQ with. It might not seem like it, but there are so many important choices that come up when you’re playing this deck (or against this deck) that a skilled player has many opportunities to leverage their skill. While I know I find the Pack Rat mirrors quite infuriating, particularly after sideboard, there are a lot of moments where patience can really matter and moments where taking risks is important; realizing which moment is which can be a huge part of getting an edge, particularly against someone else making the same decisions.

That being said, what if you want to play something else? People have asked me what I might recommend, and I have to say I have something in mind.

One of the decks that was the furthest off the others in the Top 8 of Indy was this U/W Control deck piloted by Levi Gaines:

U/W Control has largely taken off because the most aggressive decks in the format were simply overwhelming Esper Control. Additionally, those moments when Esper stumbled were often enough to let the "big bads" of the format, Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Blue Devotion, take advantage and take over the game. Primarily, though, it was Mono-Red Aggro and other similar decks that were pushing Esper out of contention and making U/W the de facto go-to control deck.

For the next week or two, though, I think there is space for Esper Control to come back. Here is my current build of Esper:

I really like U/W Control right now, but it seems to me that the incentives to play it are currently quite muted. As a result Esper might have a window to shine again. One of my absolutely favorite things about it is this guy:

The B-b-b-baron is just such an amazing way to potentially take over the game. While Blood Baron can certainly succumb quite easily to a Devour Flesh, Devour Flesh is actually a hard card to justify for a sideboarded Mono-Black Devotion deck. Blood Baron simply isn’t a very common card in Standard right now, yet it is absolutely devastating for Mono-Black Devotion decks. Without more fodder to water down the effect of a Devour Flesh, the Baron is very vulnerable to an edict effect, but at the same time it’s the only card that can really be hit by it and Devour Flesh is basically pretty horrible against Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. On the balance I find the card pretty devastatingly powerful.

I’m still working out what I want to play this weekend at my PTQ in Green Bay (“Go Pack!”), but I’m about 90% sure it will include Blood Baron of Vizkopa, whether it’s in this deck, a more honed version of the deck played by Jackson Smith, or something else entirely. If you’re up at that PTQ, make sure to wish me luck!

2014 is going to be a stellar year. While I’m going to miss doing commentary for SCGLive, I’m definitely looking forward to playing a ton more Magic and hopefully getting back on the Pro Tour once again. If you see me at an event, please feel free to come up and say hello when I’m not in a match. You’ll be seeing much more of me this year on this site, and hopefully you’ll be seeing me in coverage as well, just on the other side of the camera!

Until next week,

Adrian L. Sullivan

@AdrianLSullivan on Twitter

*While the main part of this article was pretty short, there’s a lot more down here in this afterward. I’ve been writing for a long while, and I thought that it might be useful in case you didn’t know my work to give you a sense of the work I’ve done in the past. I share a fair amount on my Facebook page, including the play-by-play of most of the events I’m playing in (fair warning). My writing hasn’t just been about the tournament environment of the moment though. The following articles are some of my favorites, and I think they are representative of some but not all of my work that is a bit more timeless than today or tomorrow’s tournament and about just understanding Magic in general.

Unfortunately, for many of these older articles the incredible conversations that happened in the forums are no longer available as far as I can tell. Before the Facebook integration of comments, the commenting system was all internal to SCG, and as a result the comments are bare. Please feel free to comment on any article, though, and if I see it, I’ll try to respond. (Poking me on my Facebook to tell me you made a comment might help.


How To Do Your Very Own Metagame Analysis – This article is slightly dated (“many players at a PTQ don’t actually read the net very much”) but mostly on par. One of the key things about doing a metagame analysis, even a very rough one, is to understand that metagames are ecologies so certain decks will thrive and others will fail in a particular environment.


Making The Best Deck Better – A case study in two different decks in two different formats that were the “stock” list, exploring how to make them better, giving general rules for how to do that with any list, and understanding the difference between tactics and strategy.


Standing Out In An Information Rich Time – General advice on what to do in a world where everyone has a good decklist. This is pretty simple advice but still relevant.


Overcoming The 4-1 Dogma In Numbers – It wasn’t all that long ago that an idea was circulating that decklists were best that had only four copies of a card or one. I greatly disagreed with that and wrote about why you’d run four, three, two, one, or zero copies of a card as well as the rationale for 61 versus 60 cards.

Deck Genesis – This article explores the idea of how to build a deck in general. In it I also talk about how deckbuilders are perhaps better referred to as “deck discoverers” because, much like the explorers of long past what we find when we work on decks was always already there; Wizards of the Coast in essence has played god and made the world that we all play in. This has some good rules of thumb for helping to uncover the best deck you can on that quest of discovery.

Distinctions In Strategic Archetypes – This is a little less focused than I’d like, but it does collect together in one place the classic definitions of aggro, control, aggro-control, and midrange.

One – A discussion of the proper time to run a singleton in your Constructed deck. Among other things I think this is the first time that the idea of diminishing returns is brought up in a serious way in a Constructed article.

Learning From The Big Mistakes – Like the title says, this article is about the big mistakes you can make in the midst of an important tournament. This isn’t a complete list of them, but I think it’s full of some important examples of pitfalls to avoid.


Good And Bad Magic – This is an article that I think is very useful for people that want to think about how to think about Magic. There are limits to data and practice (empiricism) and theory, and they all have their place. Understanding where each of these things can be useful in your own understanding of the game is critical to playing “Good Magic.” This is also one of the first explorations of the ways in which “results-oriented thinking” is problematic.

Amalgamating Decklists For Fun And Profit – The first article to explore the concept of making decklists by pushing together similar successful decklists of an archetype to try to find the root of what makes them all successful. Later Hall of Famer Frank Kartsen would also explore this topic.

The Big Lie Of “Good” Cards – A rebuttal article to Tom LaPille’s claim that cards are intrinsically “good” or “bad”; this article talks about the contextual value of cards as more important than any concept of a card’s “pure” value.

Playtesting: Tips, Tricks, And Traps – As the title implies, this is a guide to successful playtesting such that you get what you want out of it. There are different reasons to playtest, and understanding what your goals are and crafting your playtesting to match that is an important skill.

A Case Study In Playing The Wrong Deck – There are plenty of pitfalls one can fall into when you’re engaged in the work of deck selection. This article details an example of my own experience with one such deck and points out the things that can lure you into sticking with the wrong deck.

The Strategic Moment – A theory piece that explores the question of what role to take in moments of the game. Inspired by “Who’s The Beatdown,” this article looks at the six primary strategic archetypes in Magic and explores how decks occasional behave outside of their prescribed role.

Deck Discovery And Collective Intelligence in Magic – I mentioned earlier the way in which deckbuilding can often better be described as an instance of discovery. This article explores that concept as well as the idea of Collective Intelligence (an idea from the academy care of Pierre Levy) and how it applies to making yourself the best tournament Magic player you can.


Winning From Losing – There is a lot of value in losing in Magic if you take the time to find it. This article talks about how to get that value.

Why Midrange Rules Today’s Standard – This article defends the value of midrange as a strategic archetype and explores what makes a midrange deck good (or bad), as well as exploring even further the place of midrange in Constructed.

The Fear And Deckbuilding – One of the biggest things we can mess up in building a deck is succumbing to fear. This article explores the meaning of that concept and how to avoid it.

The Best Deck – When is the right time to not play the de facto “best deck?” This article gives the answer.

The Question of Pacing – Figuring out whether to speed the game up or slow it down is one of the fundamental questions in Magic, whether in Limited or Constructed. Being aware of the factors that help that choice is critical.


Getting Value From Discourse – I’ve long held that one of the most important things you can do to improve in Magic is be open to discussion. This doesn’t mean just ceding the point to someone else, but it does mean being willing to listen. This article is about cultivating the internal philosophy necessary to help yourself improve.


The Legacy Of Not White Weenie – Essentially a exploration of the inner workings of Death and Taxes, explaining why the deck does not function like a White Weenie deck despite the joke in the origins of the deck name.

Why Midrange Rules Today’s Modern – A little more on midrange, this helps update the idea of what midrange means, and though it does take some time talking about midrange in that moment in Modern, it also discusses what truly makes midrange tick as a strategic archetype.

Zvi Mowshowitz, New Standard, & The Three Constraints – Building the mana base in your deck is a critical step in deckbuilding. This article looks at the things you need to keep in mind when building any deck, and it includes a helpful guide to the mana available in the current Standard as of that moment. In my opinion always having a list like that handy is very important for a serious deckbuilder.

This list is by no means a complete list of my best articles, but it does represent those articles on StarCityGames.com that could have value to read at any time regardless of the layout of the format. One of the great things about fundamental Magic ideas is that you can carry them with you for a very long time, sometimes endlessly. I know that it’s always my goal to be contributing articles like that to the game, and I hope to do so for many more years to come.