Readying Esper For #SCGINVI

Shaheen is ready for his last hurrah with Esper Control in Standard and to crush some more with Esper Stoneblade in Legacy this weekend at #SCGINVI.

The StarCityGames.com Invitational is nearly upon us friends! When the tournament of the season draws near, I get pretty freaking excited to play some Esper in Standard and some Esper in Legacy. My biggest regret is that this will be the last major tournament that I will be summoning Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and some Spirit helpers with flashback in Standard. I mentioned a few times on Twitter that the days of Esper for me have almost come to an end and a new era of U/W/x Control will rise. Many of you don’t think I will hang up the Esper wand; however, I fully intend to do so.

They’ve printed a solid removal spell that is only white in M14 (Celestial Flare), and while Doom Blade is powerful, there aren’t enough powerful black spells post-rotation for me to play. As a result, I’ll be searching for another color or hammering a two-color solution home. Esper has treated me right for many tournaments, as well as helped many of you achieve some success and a few extra dollars on Magic Online, but it’s about that time to part ways. Like I said earlier, though, we have one last hurrah and a few more souls to linger before the curtain comes down.


The best format in Magic is about to be changed in a big way with Theros right around the corner. This StarCityGames.com Invitational, along with a few Opens after, will be the final events before the evolution takes place, and it’s time to draw a line in the sand with Esper Walkers one last time! We will look at the metagame after Captain Reid Duke victory in Miami and debate whether we have a shot at greatness in these final hours.

Here is the final pre-M14 incarnation of Esper Control (nothing from M14 is making the cut at this point).

Similarities and Differences to Other Esper Decks

This deck resembles past lists, but I’ve changed a few cards to assist us in midrange matchups. The thorn in my side and the loss to Reid Duke in both the last PTQ I played in and the WMCQ has fueled the fire of my hatred of Jund Midrange. On Magic Online the matchup’s been 50/50 for me, and most people would be ok with that. I want to be ok with that, but I’m not. In a previous article, I mentioned that you can’t cure all bad matchups, and this is true. You don’t want to water your deck down to something unrecognizable in order to defeat a certain deck.

As you can see, the only changes I made were to a couple removal spells and sideboard slots. Even though I’m frustrated with losing half the time to Jund, I don’t think it’s right to change the list too much in order to conquer the menace unless it doesn’t hurt your other matchups too much. Remember, there is always a Naya Blitz player waiting in the shadows ready to take you out of the tournament if you aren’t prepared.

I ranted on Twitter about my distaste for Augur of Bolas in recent tournaments, so I cut it and haven’t looked back. In a deck with 20-21 instants and sorceries, it can be very disappointing. I would never cut it in a Restoration Angel deck or decks that contain a massive spell count to prevent missing, but in this Esper Walkers list, it is a huge liability. There are some matchups, Jund Midrange in particular, that Augur must replace itself in order to attain victory on many occasions. In most matchups, we finish up with plenty of spells to spare or lock up victory early on with options, but against Jund it is a tooth and nail battle to the death.

I tried two Think Twices and a Syncopate instead of the Augurs at first, but that didn’t pan out too well. I then tried a third Warped Physique, another Snapcaster Mage, and one Think Twice. The Warped Physique can be Far // Away if you prefer. The Think Twice has turned into Azorious Charm number five to help hit that third and fourth land drop the deck desperately needs. In a perfect world, I would go back up to two or maybe three copies of Think Twice, but in this dangerous realm of aggressive red decks and numerous types of Aristocrats, there is simply no time to even think once let alone twice.

I’ve seen people achieving success with four Terminuses, and even though those champions are my Esper brother in arms, I cannot give my blessing to that strategy. Terminus can be amazing—it really can—but Supreme Verdict is just fine the way it is. Terminus handles a lot of creatures in a clean fashion, but there are too many matches that require a swift turn 4 sweep, which is what Supreme Verdict delivers. I’m not saying that the Terminus strategy is bad—far from it! I just have more faith in my ability to plan and destroy opponents rather than leaving it up to the statistics and blind luck to deliver board justice. If you are a Terminus man or woman, then by all means dive right in, but I’m staying in safe town.

The age-old debate between walking and not walking continues. You all know my position on the planeswalker debate, and I stand firmly in the yes column as I jam seven into my maindeck without question. I even added Jace, Memory Adept to the sideboard to have one more haymaker in control mirrors. Esper Control decks without planeswalkers are also very powerful but in different ways. I feel that the “draw-go” version of the deck (with Terminus) is much better at handling super aggressive decks but lacks power against midrange decks. I have won many games by casting Lingering Souls on turn 3 and making an emblem with Sorin, Lord of Innistrad on turn 4 that the other forms of Esper don’t have the ability to do.

Winning solely on the back of Aetherling and Nephalia Drownyard can be a huge burden. Planeswalkers create an unwinnable situation for your opponent pretty early on when the board clears up and they remain. Pick your poison. Do you want to crush aggressive red decks with an absurd amount of board sweeps and removal, or do you want to have better game against midrange decks with powerful planeswalkers? It really comes down to your local metagame. I have considered switching multiple times. Every time I die on turn 4 to an “all-in” deck, I want to start from scratch, but luckily the number of aggressive red players in live play is significantly smaller than the amount on Magic Online.

My current version of Esper and previous incarnations have the same goal in the end: control. If you play a deck with wraths, removal, and card draw, it can never be totally wrong or ineffective. Playing staples like Azorius Charm, Supreme Verdict, and Sphinx’s Revelation are key in building an effective control shell. No matter what direction you take, I consider you part of the team. We are at war my Esper friends, and even though the light seems dim at the end of the tournament tunnel, I think we have a few victories left in front of us. Gerry Thompson wrote an article a little while back that listed the viable control decks to play at Standard tournaments, and Esper was left off. I was not surprised, but I am confident that there will be at least one Esper player in the Invitational Top 8 making a run for it.

Defeating Jund Midrange

I love Reid and the cards played in Jund Midrange, but it’s a deck with nightmare spells that devastate Esper players everywhere. Cards like Rakdos’s Return; Garruk, Primal Hunter; Sire of Insanity; and Kessig Wolf Run can end us with a simple activation or resolution. The midrange decks of old had one or two spells max that put a hurting on our control strategy, but that’s not the case anymore. Each of the spells mentioned above as well as all of Jund’s creatures have to be dealt with immediately or there’s a loss for us is in the near future. A singleton like Rakdos Keyrune can even be a real pain at certain points in a match to give you a little perspective on the matchup nightmare that is Jund.

After board it gets even worse for an unexpecting Esper player because of the slew of removal dropped and replaced by Vraska the Unseen, Underworld Connections, and sometimes a Duress effect or two. Luckily, we have a few bullets to bring down the beast after board, which only reason I upgraded this matchup to 50/50.

Sideboarding against Jund Midrange:

In: +3 Negate, +2 Appetite for Brains, +2 Evil Twin

Out: -2 Warped Physique, -2 Supreme Verdict, -1 Think Twice, -1 Lingering Souls, -1 Snapcaster Mage

After board we are much better suited to deal with dangerous spells and planeswalkers with the influx of countermagic and hand disruption. Negate and Appetite for Brains deal with all of the problem cards prior to resolution, and Evil Twin is just amazing against Huntmaster of the Fells, Olivia Voldaren, and Thragtusk. Oftentimes you’ll have an opponent pass their turn against your Evil Twined Huntmaster of the Fells and expect theirs to flip and kill yours from an active player initial trigger. Luckily, all you have to do is tap a blue and black mana and kill it in response to solve that problem. I know most of you already know that trick, but I promise one of your opponents will attempt this.

Besides Evil Twin tricks, you really trim the fat of Esper when you board. The Twins serve as Supreme Verdicts, and if you are positive they don’t have Ground Seal or won’t board it in, take a third Verdict out for Snapcaster Mage. The reason I don’t want two Snapcasters is because of the aforementioned Ground Seal, but if they aren’t using it, then Tiago Chan really tears Jund a new one.

I lose almost all of my game 1s against Jund Midrange. Sometimes I win games where they Farseek a lot and do nothing or don’t Farseek at all and I have time to gain some planeswalker advantage. Thankfully, I have consistently won post-board games. However, starting down a game is the reason why this matchup is much worse than I’d like it to be. I tried Evil Twin and Negate maindeck to varying degrees of success against Jund, but then you weaken your matchup against aggressive red decks drastically. I completely support Evil Twin in the main if you can find the room, but if not be prepared to shuffle through your board looking for victory in games 2 and 3.

Jund Midrange was a popular deck before, but you will be surprised how much more popular it can become with a Grand Prix victory. People are looking to play decks that provide results, and often GPs, Invitationals, and Pro Tours are the tournaments that give players the evidence they require to entrust their funds and time in a particular deck. Players are also looking for a deck to ride to the end of rotation, and Jund might have received that spike in media coverage to get some on-the-fence players on board.

Luckily, Jund Midrange has a lot of bad matchups. I have watched a Geist of Saint Traft with all kinds of Auras just slaughter Jund players over and over again. Especially with Liliana of the Veil in the sideboard or cut completely, Bant Hexproof can really keep a midrange deck in check. Aggressive red decks are another nightmare for Jund that require a Farseek to have a shot to win. With an abysmal aggro game, Jund could be held off in the early rounds, so maybe dodging is the best strategy for us scared Esperians.

Legacy and the Rule Changes

My Twitter followers have already seen my disapproval of pointless rule changes that will not accomplish anything beneficial. Usually WotC successfully defends their decisions or at least has a logical argument to present. Not here ladies and gentlemen. In Standard you will not see a huge, devastating change; all 99 problems will come in Legacy.

Do you like it when your opponent has Umezawa’s Jitte and you don’t? Now if they have it, you’ll never have one. Let me explain.

My Spirit token connects with an equipped Umezawa’s Jitte and gains counters. If they try to equip their Jitte to one of their creatures, chances are you can kill it with a few -1/-1 counters. The following turn, you get to rinse and repeat the process. Your opponent is left having their own Umezawa’s Jitte, but it won’t actually be doing anything.

This is one of many examples that shows the new legend rule will have the opposite of the intended effect, rewarding the player that drew the spell first with an almost guaranteed victory. Do you think your Jace, the Mind Sculptor is better now because you don’t have to “waste” it to kill your opponent’s? Think again. After a few activations, I’ve come back and won many matches on the back of the old legend rule. If I’m able to play the one I finally drew on a board where they have a guy or two, it’s simply awful.

I could go on for days about how the legend rule is bad for Legacy and bad for Magic, but time is truly the only thing that will tell. I’m sure we will all move along and keep playing the game we love, but it doesn’t mean we can’t point out the obvious flaws coming from the Magic gods above. The main reason for this discussion is to be fully aware of the big changes the new rules bring. We have been playing a certain way for so long, and I want to help you all avoid the mistakes that will probably occur throughout the big weekend.

As far as what to play for Legacy, my deck has changed very, very little. Here is my suggested list:

The only changes are one more Tundra, cutting the Glacial Fortress (who plays Choke anymore?), and the two Notion Thiefs added to the sideboard. When Notion Thief was spoiled, I shrieked, “Leeeeegacyyyyy!” That card is just a house against all the blue decks as a surprise or a permanent “no card draw for you” fixture.

The only thing you have to decide is whether to play this or Deathrite Shaman. Todd Anderson is a master and Esper Deathblade is powerful, but this is the definition of consistent. Legacy decks come and go. Powerful cards are banned / unbanned, and fads catch on. The only constant is that Stoneblade will always be good and never have a matchup that is unwinnable. It really is a style preference. Do you want a more powerful deck that might not cooperate with you against enemy Wastelands or awkward draws? Or do you want a slightly weaker but more consistent control deck that isn’t too difficult to operate? The choice is yours!

Good luck my friends in the StarCityGames.com Invitational. I hope Esper can make a few more people upset on your way to a championship or at least some solid finishes across the board.

Until next time awesome people!


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