#SCGINVI Preparation: Building & Beating Esper

Four-time Grand Prix Top 8 competitor Todd Anderson writes about how to build and beat the hot deck at the moment in Standard for #SCGINVI in Charlotte this weekend.


Preparing For Split Format Events

Preparing for a tournament can be difficult. Getting in enough games to figure out exactly what deck you want to play, specific card changes, sideboarding changes, sideboarding plans, and the like can become tedious. Magic is a vastly complex game that takes a lot of time and thought to get everything right.

Now double that and you have tournaments like the SCG Invitational in Charlotte this weekend.

Split format tournaments are much harder to prepare for than regular tournaments and are some of the most complex monsters to ever be toppled. This is one of the reasons why some people always struggle at the Pro Tour while others shine. If you’re skilled in time management and have a general knowledge of both specific formats in question, you’ll have a significant advantage over someone who generally plays a single format. For most the preferred format is Standard because that’s usually the FNM format. For others it might be Draft or even Eternal formats because they tend to play those with their friends more than anything else.

But when you have to mix two formats together for the same event, you get a true test of your skill level. Now being a master of one format doesn’t matter nearly as much as just being a balanced Magician. If you’re good at the game of Magic, you’ll shine at tournaments like the Invitational and hopefully even at the Pro Tour.

Split format tournaments are an absolute blast for me because they accentuate my ability to shine across multiple formats. At the same time it can be difficult to go through a regimen of testing for two different formats because I’m already neck deep nearly every day testing for whatever format for whatever tournament I’m going to on the weekend.

With that said, I’m going to take a good look at Standard in today’s article, telling you exactly what you should be trying to do as opposed to what deck you should play. As of writing this article, I honestly don’t know what I’m going to be playing in the Legacy portion of the event, so that is the format I’m going to be testing more than anything this week leading up to the tournament.

I’m actually digging the vibes from Phimus Pan’s BUG Control deck from SCG Legacy Open: Los Angeles this past weekend. True-Name Nemesis is absolutely the most frustrating card for the opponent to deal with in any fair deck on fair deck matchup, so playing four over something like Tarmogoyf seems correct. I’m a fan of moving away from junkers like Ancestral Vision, as it takes too much work to set up alongside Shardless Agent and the payoff isn’t really overwhelming. After all, card advantage doesn’t exactly win games in Legacy. Powerful effects, tempo, and locking your opponent out of the game are the main game plans, which is one of the reasons why a draw-go style deck hasn’t come up in ages. But I’m still not sure if the deck is good enough since I haven’t had a chance to play with it myself yet.

Which brings me to my next point:

For the most part, I think playing decks you’re familiar with is a great idea. Since you don’t always have time to test for both portions of the event, knowing your deck inside and out can go a long way. If you’re already “prepared” for a format like Legacy because you’ve been playing the same deck for months, then you’ll definitely have a leg up on your opponents if they’re inexperienced in Legacy. The same can be said if you play a lot of Standard, and you should just focus on whatever format you think you’re weakest in.

Switching decks at the last minute is occasionally correct, though it has diminishing returns. Even if that strategy was the best deck for the week before, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the best deck for this tournament. People will adapt to help fight whatever decks did well at the last Grand Prix or Pro Tour or whatever. You have to take a lot of different variables into consideration when making your deck choice, but the safest choice will always be what you’re most comfortable playing and what choice will force you to commit the least amount of time investment so that you can focus on the format you’re least familiar with.

Shifting Gears In Standard

Obviously Esper Control is powerful, and if you watch our Versus video from Monday, you’ll see that Brad Nelson played my list at Grand Prix Cincinnati to a finals finish. Our testing definitely influences our deck decisions, and I’m sure that me beating him 4-1 helped him make the decision to switch away from the creature plan out of the sideboard.

But the main question I’ve been getting from people since the event is “why didn’t you play creatures in the sideboard?” The argument against creatures is not flawless, but I will do my best to answer so you have a better understanding of why we chose to build the deck the way we did.

1) How many decks in the format are afraid of Supreme Verdict?

The truth of the matter is that you don’t want Supreme Verdict to ever be a bad draw. It’s in the deck because it’s good against virtually every matchup except the mirror and isn’t all that bad if you expect Blood Baron of Vizkopa and company to make an appearance. If you start bringing in cards like Nightveil Specter against Mono-Black or Mono-Blue Devotion, then Supreme Verdict will be much worse as a result. Even if you get in an attack or two, that isn’t exactly what your deck is trying to do. You generally win games by answering every relevant threat from the opponent; casting Sphinx’s Revelation; and eventually getting an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or Aetherling online.

Changing this game plan by siding in creatures shifts how your deck works on a fundamental level. You start to sandbag your creatures, and they become worse as the game goes longer. When you cast Sphinx’s Revelation, you want every single spell you draw to matter, and you also want to be able to cast them in a timely manner. If your hand is full of Blood Baron of Vizkopa and extra copies of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, that’s fine and good, but how many of those spells are you going to be able to cast before you die to Obzedat, Ghost Council or something similar?

2) Why is every spell in the sideboard a one- or two-mana spell?

This is mostly coincidence, though the theory behind it is solid. I don’t mind having a few cards that are more expensive as long as they’re high impact (such as Fated Retribution). But for the most part, I want Sphinx’s Revelation to be as powerful as possible.

When you cast Sphinx’s Revelation, you’re generally spending your entire turn doing so. When this happens, you create a one-turn vacuum for your opponent to do something incredibly dangerous, not to mention whatever else they’ve added to the board throughout the game. When you cast Sphinx’s Revelation, you want to draw spells that can put you back in the game immediately or push your advantage even further. When all of those spells cost four to seven mana, then it won’t be all that easy to mount a comeback, and a single Detention Sphere for your Elspeth, Sun’s Champion tokens can spell game over.

So how can you make your spells as impactful as possible? Well, when they are all specific answers for opposing cards in specific matchups, you can play two or even three spells in a single turn, effectively negating the turn you spent casting Sphinx’s Revelation in the first place. If you cast Revelation against Mono-Black Devotion, drawing extra copies of Dark Betrayal to go alongside Jace, Architect of Thought is just absurd. The same can be said about Revoke Existence against U/W Devotion and a slew of counterspells and discard spells for the mirror.

When you’re able to play multiple spells in the turns following your big Sphinx’s Revelation, you’re putting all of your resources to good use every single turn, and that makes it absurdly difficult for any deck to fight against you. That is one of the reasons why I loved the old U/W/R Flash decks so much, as the entirety of the deck was full of cheap spells to stall your opponent in the early game as well as recoup after a medium or big Revelation. After board your Esper Control deck should be configured similarly.

Of course you rarely want to side out cards like Aetherling or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion because those are your actual win conditions, but you should really take a moment and consider whether or not you actually need additional win conditions. Honestly I don’t think you do, and I wouldn’t bother playing superfluous threats like Blood Baron of Vizkopa or Nightveil Specter because they’re not integral to your game plan. I’d much rather fill my sideboard with cheap, high-impact, matchup-specific cards that can turn the tide heavily in my favor.

3) Why wasn’t the Blind Obedience good in the deck?

Similar to the theory behind the rest of the sideboard, you want your spells to be cheap, but you also need them to be high impact. Blind Obedience is one of the worst cards you can possibly draw off Sphinx’s Revelation and is subsequently a really bad one-of. If you want to play something like Blind Obedience, you should definitely have more copies than just one. We didn’t realize this when we were building the deck and only noticed after Brad went deep in the tournament.

Originally the Blind Obedience was a Last Breath, but we moved it to the maindeck over a Syncopate and had an extra slot. Brad was set on Blind Obedience being a great card for the deck, but his results from it were skewed. He had been playing a ton with the Elixir of Immortality version, and I agree that Blind Obedience is exactly what you want in that deck. You want cards that can answer a plethora of threats, slowing them down enough so that Supreme Verdict actually protects you in the long run. This is one reason why Quicken is good in the deck, but you didn’t see us playing Quicken in the Esper version, right?

The logic here is that after board you want to make Sphinx’s Revelation absolutely bonkers and Blind Obedience is mediocre when drawn in the late game. At that point you want to draw answers to things already in play. Sure, the one-of is great if it’s in your opener against a Stormbreath Dragon deck, but if you want to draw something in your opening hand consistently, it requires playing more than a single copy. For cards you opt to play one copy of, you need them to be great in a number of different spots, which just isn’t the case when it comes to Blind Obedience.

If I were to play Esper Control at the SCG Invitational in Charlotte, it would look something like this:

The minor changes stem mostly from sideboard theory and giving yourself the most options against a higher number of matchups. I want one copy of Fated Retribution to help out against both the mirror and all variations of Monsters. Killing all of their creatures alongside Domri Rade or Xenagos, the Reveler is quite ridiculous and exactly what you want when you’re digging with Sphinx’s Revelation. We make room for this by cutting one Dark Betrayal, switching a Doom Blade for an Ultimate Price so that we have the same number of cards to bring in against that matchup.

Additionally, we’re cutting the Blind Obedience for one copy of Pithing Needle, which has utility in a significant number of matchups. Locking down the opponent’s planeswalkers in the Monsters matchup is an easy way to give yourself some much needed time. Their planeswalkers give them a way to pressure you without adding creatures to the board, making Supreme Verdict much worse in the long run.

Pithing Needle can also shut down a copy of Underworld Connections, which takes a bit of pressure off Detention Sphere.

But after Grand Prix Cincinnati, I don’t know if I actually want to play Esper Control in Standard anymore. The deck doesn’t always win in an appropriate amount of time. In fact, Brad’s quarterfinals match took over an hour and a half. That’s more than half as much time as you’re given in a normal Swiss round! Since the match was untimed, they were allowed to play it out in its entirety, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get to do that at the Invitational.

With the finals of the tournament between Brad and Kyle Boggemes being an Esper Control mirror, this problem is only going to be compounded. Generally speaking, better players tend to lean toward blue decks because it gives them a feeling of control over the outcome of their tournament, so that means it’s likely that many people will be playing Esper at #SCGINVI. This means a lot of mirror matches.

This also means a lot of unintentional draws.

Even if you’re a fast player like me or Brad, the games will not always play out in such a way that you can finish three games. This is a serious problem for any tournament, let alone the Invitational. Unintentional draws can ruin your tournament, as they are effectively the same as a loss in a lot of scenarios. If the metagame is as full of Esper Control as I expect, then the last thing I want to do is play Esper myself. There is only so much of an edge you can gain in the mirror, as the answers available can overwhelm most threats. If you watch Monday’s Versus video, you’ll see me navigate quite easily around his Nightveil Specters, and I assume the same can be said for a number of other sideboard options you could play.

But I’m looking to do something completely different.

One weakness that is easy to exploit against Esper Control is the fact that twelve of their lands come into play tapped. This means that an early aggressive start followed by some backbreaking midgame spells after they cast Supreme Verdict is an easy way to beat them. One of the worst matchups for Esper is red aggro because it does exactly that.

Here is the initial list for an aggressive red deck that I want to test this week:

This list is obviously rough, but I think it is a great starting point. There are plenty of aggressive decks similar to this running around on Magic Online, though most of them are much more burn heavy and focus less on creatures. Honestly, that could be a better build because it wants to interact with the opponent less. However, those versions can lose to anyone with any sort of dedicated hate.

As a control player, I know that the burn-heavy decks are weaker to counterspells, making cards like Dispel all-stars. Against this version as a control player, I would be much less likely to board in Dispel, as it has much less of an impact when there are so many creatures coming at you in the early turns of the game.

I wouldn’t recommend playing something like Foundry-Street Denizen because those versions of the deck feature stronger nut draws but weaker draws overall. Mediocre one-drop creatures are obviously great on the first turn of the game, but what about when you draw them on turn 3 or 4? They become much worse overall, and your nut draws don’t actually need much help in winning the game.

This list is probably short a white source or two, but I don’t want Plains and would probably kill myself if I ever drew a Boros Guildgate, so I think I’m going to gamble a bit with the early version of the deck. You don’t always need an early Chained to the Rocks, so you can definitely afford to have them stuck in your hand until you absolutely need them against something like Desecration Demon or Master of Waves.

The four copies of Mutavault are also a bit risky, but it’s one of the best cards in the format against Esper Control out of this shell. There will be times where you draw Mutavault and Mountain alongside Burning-Tree Emissary and Ash Zealot, but this is virtually an eighteen-land deck that happens to have four creatures that don’t cost any mana to play. Luckily, those creatures also help cast things like Gore-House Chainwalker and Firefist Striker.

Honestly, I’m not always a fan of aggressive decks because they tend to have very little card selection and regularly flood out and die. I love playing decks with a higher land count and cards that have a high impact in both the early game and the late game, and this deck doesn’t really have a ton of that going for it. Burning-Tree Emissary decks can be explosive but are not always consistent, which is why I tend to shy away from them, but I think something similar to this could be perfectly positioned for the tournament this weekend. I’ll definitely be giving it a try over the next few days.

Whenever a big tournament like this is coming up for me, I rarely know exactly what I want to play until the day before the tournament. That is mostly because, every single day of the week I figure out something new about the format. I’ve been playing a ton of Standard over the last few weeks, and that’s one of the reasons why I was able to sculpt the decklist that Brad piloted to the finals of #GPCincy. Unfortunately, even if you’re correct about a deck, that doesn’t always mean you’ll do well with it. But I was able to see my best friend nearly take home the trophy, and that’s good enough for me.

If you can’t make it to Charlotte this weekend, be sure to check out the coverage on SCGLive. It’s going to be a blast, and you don’t want to miss a minute of all the action. Wish me luck!