This past weekend was an exciting one in the world of Magic. There was a plethora of tournaments around the world, including the StarCityGames.com Open Series featuring the Season One Invitational in Charlotte. I did a reasonable amount of preparation for the event, testing Standard vigorously over the last few weeks. While my results weren’t exactly on par with my expectations, my buddy Bard Narson made the finals of Grand Prix Cincinnati with my list of Esper Control in Standard, giving me a reason to keep the faith.
Unfortunately, I did not foresee such an aggressive shift in the metagame to combat the Esper menace. Traditionally, control decks are built to be favorable in aggressive matchups, featuring a swath of removal, sweeper effects, and card advantage. There are times when the aggressive decks are just too powerful for the control decks to handle, but there is also such a thing as control decks becoming too inbred, focusing more on beating midrange strategies and other control decks.
And that’s exactly what happened this past weekend in the Invitational.
The Standard Portion
To say I got smashed in Standard would be an understatement. Round after round I squared off against Xathrid Necromancer and Boros Charm, and each time I came away feeling like I’d missed the mark completely. At times I’d stumble on mana and just die. Other times my opponent would have the right card at the right time to counter what I was trying to do. I regularly was stuck with dead cards in hand while my opponents just ran me over before I could even think about casting a Sphinx’s Revelation.
And I think that trend is going to continue in Standard until people realize exactly why this is happening.
The current shell of Esper is built to beat other control decks and midrange decks. Until recently, Mono-Blue Devotion was the only real “aggressive” deck in the format, mostly because it pushed out all of the other aggro decks. Cards like Tidebinder Mage, Master of Waves, and even Frostburn Weird are tough for people with Rakdos Cackler to handle. But with such a heavy swing toward Esper Control over the last two weeks, people were switching away from Mono-Blue in favor of things with a quicker punch.
If you ask anyone who has played a lot of Standard over the last few months, they’ll tell you that Mono-Blue Devotion is incredibly awkward against an opponent packing Supreme Verdict. Cloudfin Raptor and its ilk are downright embarrassing at times, and the beats don’t stop there. When the opponent has an active Jace, Architect of Thought, the amount of resources you have to devote to the board just to kill Jace is ridiculous, as most of your creatures only have one or two power! That just bottlenecks you headfirst into Supreme Verdict, giving them a large jump in card advantage in the early turns of the game. After that point all they really have to deal with is Mutavault and the game is theirs.
With that being the case, I can see why many players were afraid to play Mono-Blue in the Invitational. However, in actuality it was an incredible time to be playing Mono-Blue, as the backlash toward Esper would keep many people from playing it while also providing you with a slew of favorable matchups in Mono-Red Aggro and R/W Burn. If you take a look at the decks that performed the best at the Invitational in the eight rounds of Standard, you will see what I am talking about.
My favorite one to point out is Sam Black’s Mono-Blue Devotion list that went 8-0, likely beating up on a lot of aggressive decks along the way. I know that I suggested Mono-Red Aggro last week as an easy way to steal wins from slow control strategies, but I never thought it would be so prominent.
I won’t bore you with another slightly different Esper Control list, but I have been working on a couple spicy aggro numbers. I’m not sure which one I like best, but both of them share a lot of the same cards.
- 4 Thrill-Kill Assassin
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 4 Tormented Hero
- 2 Mogis's Marauder
- 4 Pain Seer
- 4 Herald of Torment
- 3 Spiteful Returned
Before we go into why I think this deck is good, here’s the slightly different version that’s a bit stronger but less consistent:
Like the aggressive red decks, both of these lists are fantastic at applying early pressure. Your one- and two-drop creatures can end some games before your opponent can do much of anything. The fact that many of your cards are solid against an opposing Supreme Verdict is also awesome.
The theory behind these two decks is that they utilize Mutavault better than any other deck in the format. You don’t have any two-drop creatures that cost two black mana, and you have a lot of ways to actually use the extra mana that Mutavault provides. The bestow ability rewards you for playing extra lands, and having Mutavault be that extra land is just ridiculous. I have considered going up to 24 lands, but I haven’t had many issues with drawing enough lands to cast my spells just yet.
The red version of the deck is much more explosive, and your removal being Lightning Strike makes it much more versatile as well. Much like Lightning Bolt out of RUG Delver in Legacy versus Abrupt Decay out of BUG Delver, having access to a burn spell as your main source of removal is great in an aggressive strategy. When your opponent doesn’t have any creatures to kill, being able to deal the last few points of damage to them can mean all the difference.
Spike Jester is also an absurd Magic card. I know that many of you won’t believe me because you haven’t seen it in action all that much, but I can assure you that three power for two mana with haste is not only unfair but downright ridiculous. I remember the days when red and black decks were happy to have cards like Goblin Raider and Spineless Thug.
The only problem with playing the more powerful version of the deck is that it comes with a price. There are some games where Temple of Malice coming into play tapped keeps you from exploding on curve. There are other games where you will draw plenty of Lightning Strike without a way to cast them.
And you can be damned sure I’m not going to play Rakdos Guildgate.
After having a few issues with the mana, I eventually moved toward the Mono-Black version. Bile Blight can be substituted for a variety of removal spells, but it mostly depends on what you think you’ll play against the most. Since red and blue decks seem to be all the rage this week, I think Bile Blight is pretty solid. It can kill most everything you need it to kill and even takes care of Elspeth, Sun’s Champion Soldier tokens so you can rumble past them. It isn’t great against G/R Monsters but does have merit against Mono-Black Devotion, killing off Pack Rat, Lifebane Zombie, or Nightveil Specter.
I’m not in love with the idea of playing Thrill-Kill Assassin, but I can guarantee that it will work just fine for you. Against Mono-Blue Devotion or midrange strategies, it can act as a pseudo-removal spell if you opt to keep it on a tight leash. But if your plan involves something much more sinister, you could always unleash it and get to work. Very few early threats can trade with Assassin without a little help, making it mostly unblockable until their life total becomes in danger.
The rest of the creatures in the deck all have their own merits and their soft spots. For example, Pain Seer is almost always a Grizzly Bears, but it tends to be a lightning rod for removal spells. If they aren’t able to kill it or brick wall it with a creature, then you will likely outpace them with card advantage. It shines against control decks but still rarely draws you a card. The threat of drawing a card is much more important than actually drawing a card because it forces their hand to deal with it instead of ignoring it.
Spiteful Returned is similarly powerful against control decks, acting as a virtual 3/1 for 1B, but is lackluster against other creature-based strategies. In those matchups, you almost always want to use the bestow ability instead of casting it unless your hand is flush with removal spells. It has some synergy with Tormented Hero’s heroic ability, which is nice but doesn’t come up all that often.
Herald of Torment is almost always fantastic, but the drawback of losing a life every turn is relevant against other aggressive strategies. It’s big enough to put up a roadblock against other decks if you have to be defensive for a turn or two, but a few Boros Charm later, the damage from Herald can really add up.
Boon of Erebos isn’t a card I wanted to put in a Constructed deck until I started playing some Theros Block Constructed on Magic Online. Along with the synergy with heroic, Boon of Erebos is a versatile spell that costs very little mana. It gives you a way to save your best threat from Supreme Verdict and also gives you a cheap way to bust through a stalled board. It acts as a combat trick in some scenarios, often killing your opponent’s best creature for a small investment. It will almost always be solid regardless of the matchup because your opponent will rarely be able to hold up enough mana to play a removal spell in response.
Your deck is built to explode onto the board as fast as possible, meaning your opponent will have to do the same to keep up. If they’re never able to hold open mana alongside a blocker, then your combat tricks become significantly better as a result. This is one of the reasons why combat tricks are so powerful in Theros Limited and also why they can transition well into this deck for Standard. You don’t want to flood out on them, which is why we’re only playing a few copies, but drawing them in the right spots gives your deck a different angle of play that few people will be expecting, let alone play around.
As of now, I’m still not sure which version I like best, but I do know that they’re both fairly powerful and reasonably positioned against the field I would be expecting at the next Standard tournament I attend.
The Legacy Portion
The Legacy portion of the Invitational was pretty sweet. I think Brad really hit the nail on the head when he said that we should play Sneak and Show, and his list wasn’t too shabby. While I went 4-2 in the matches of Legacy I played in the Invitational, which isn’t spectacular, I did end up going 8-1 in the Legacy Open with the following list of Sneak and Show.
As you can see, there isn’t a whole lot of new stuff going on . . . or is there?
Kelvin Young piloted a list of Sneak and Show at the Open Series in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago sporting Jace, the Mind Sculptor in the maindeck. Quite honestly, the card is bonkers in this deck because of how fast you can cast it. Not a lot of decks in Legacy are great at fighting an active Jace, and giving yourself the ability to continuously dig for combo pieces and disruption is outstanding.
Unlike most Jace decks, you can’t protect it too well from opposing creatures, but that isn’t always necessary given how fast you can put it into play. I cast Jace on turn 2 a good number of times on the weekend, putting my opponents in quite the predicament. If they’re focusing their counterspells on Jace, then they usually don’t have the resources to also stop your Show and Tell or Sneak Attack. But if they let your Jace resolve, then you’ll almost certainly grind through their disruption with brute force.
Once upon a time, I thought that Show and Tell was the most absurd card still legal in Legacy. It gives you a way to cheat gigantic monsters into play without being particularly vulnerable to anything outside of discard and counterspells, unlike Reanimator. While both decks do similar things, Show and Tell is just a gigantic ritual effect, and those are not always looked upon with caring eyes. But after playing with Sneak and Show a good bit, I can tell you that Sneak Attack is a much more powerful card.
Hilariously enough, Show and Tell almost always puts Sneak Attack into play, acting as a Desperate Ritual of sorts that keeps the opponent from being able to counter your Sneak Attack directly. Yes, there are some matchups where Show and Tell is good enough on its own, but most decks have access to some type of big scary threat that is not easy to beat. Planeswalkers like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Liliana of the Veil show up in a number of decks, so having a naked Emrakul, the Aeons Torn sitting in play is an easy way to lose all of your resources for no gain. Putting in Griselbrand is another story entirely, as drawing into multiple copies of Force of Will is ridiculously hard for most decks to beat.
But then you have cards like Karakas, Oblivion Ring, and the like that are actively bad for you when you cast Show and Tell and put in a monster instead of a Sneak Attack. A lot of decks are bringing something to class that you can’t beat, putting a lot of pressure on Sneak Attack to win the game. At the Legacy Open, I only cast Show and Tell three times on the day where I just put in Griselbrand and zero times where I just put in Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Having access to Gitaxian Probe gave me the information I needed to make correct decisions, and it was almost always incorrect for me to put Emrakul into play by itself.
As for the rest of the deck, I had a good idea of what type of Sneak and Show list I wanted to play, but I didn’t have enough experience with the deck to make the final tweaks until after I had already bombed out of the Invitational on day 2. First of all, I think that four copies of Spell Pierce is just a necessity. It can prevent your opponent from comboing off against you while simultaneously being one of the best spells for protecting your own combo. Nearly every deck in the format will give you quite a juicy target for it in the early game, and I feel safer having it in most opening hands than not.
In the immortal words of Gerry Thompson, “Gitaxian Probe is just training wheels.” I used to think that too because Gerry is always right . . . except when he’s wrong. We aren’t all stone-cold masters, and even the Gerry Thompson himself played Gitaxian Probe in the Sneak and Show list he used to Top 8 the Invitational in Indianapolis last year. Gitaxian Probe is such a boon for a deck like Sneak and Show, giving you a way to get perfect information from your opponent without investing in another color for discard spells. It also has a good bit of play alongside Ponder, allowing you to potentially keep an extra card before using a fetch land to shuffle the last one away.
While the life cost associated with Gitaxian Probe is not exactly a freeroll against Delver decks and the like, it is minimal enough that the information gained outweighs the downside. I think that four copies is potentially excessive since drawing multiples is usually mediocre, but I also think the card is far more valuable than having access to a “better” cantrip in Preordain. Ponder and Brainstorm let you spin your wheels enough as it is, so having your last cantrip spot do something entirely different is exactly what the deck wants.
I don’t have enough experience with the deck to give you sideboarding advice for each and every matchup in Legacy, but I will tell you a few things I’ve learned in the last week. For one, Through the Breach is a great card for the board but has its downsides. It doesn’t interact favorably with an opposing Karakas, and you won’t ever be able to kill them in one shot unless they’ve dealt themselves a significant amount of damage.
Mostly Through the Breach is a way to put Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play so that you can win the game a few turns later, but there were times when Through the Breach just wasn’t enough. If your opponent has Karakas and Pithing Needle, the game is basically unwinnable outside of Jace, the Mind Sculptor. This problem can be alleviated by playing some sort of Shatter effect, though I don’t know which one I would prefer.
It’s possible that I was foolish to cut Echoing Truth / Wipe Away from the deck for this reason, not to mention the fact that many random strategies are implementing an Ensnaring Bridge sideboard plan. This is yet another reason to run a Shatter effect, but I’m not sure if that is better or worse than just playing a few bounce spells that you can draw into with Griselbrand.
What I do know is that Mountain is an abomination in the deck. Yes, you will want it against Wasteland decks on occasion. However, you have more pressing matters to worry about, like casting Ponder. If you ever draw a Mountain in this deck, it feels like a mulligan. I understand that the need for it will arise at times, but the times you don’t need it far outweigh the times you do in importance and is something to consider. There’s also the added benefit of being able to play with off-color blue fetch lands so that your opponent might take different lines of play in the early turns of the game, allowing you to fire off an easy Show and Tell.
Since Delver decks are some of the harder matchups because they tend to be highly disruptive with a fast clock (which is how you beat combo decks—shocker I know), I think that replacing Leyline of Sanctity with another “must counter” card that ends the game is a great idea moving forward.
I had Blood Moon in my sideboard alongside Leyline of Sanctity for the Invitational, but I didn’t ever side it in so I cut it for the Open. This was a mistake, as both of my losses in the tournament came at the hands of Delver opponents who had zero basic lands and had to go through extreme means to get it off the table once it was in play. I think that Blood Moon is an important tool for fighting a matchup that can be as problematic as Delver in all its various shapes and forms.
While Blood Moon can be awkward to cast early, often shutting you out of blue mana, that is irrelevant if they have not established a board presence. This means you will have all the time in the world to draw Island or Sneak Attack to actually end the game. Having Pyroclasm to complement Blood Moon in this matchup means you have the tools to lock them out of the game as well as deal with any early threat they can sneak under your Blood Moon. If they’ve landed a Tarmogoyf already, then you’re definitely in trouble, but I feel like Tarmogoyf is probably their worst threat against you since it generally forces them to tap out.
Working For The Weekend
Most weekends I travel to tournaments. Driving long distances, eating a lot of fast food, and occasionally getting on an airplane can be taxing. Every now and then I need to take a break, and this weekend feels like as good as any. Since I’ve already accumulated five finishes on the Grand Prix circuit, flying to Phoenix for the GP seems foolish. I’m not sure what technology I’ll have for you next week, but I’ll probably be spending a good bit of my free time during the week playing Magic Online, weathering the storm of Boros Charm and Fireblast . . .
On second thought, maybe I’ll just grill some steaks.