Standard Success, Modern Woes

Shaheen Soorani crushed the Standard competition with a control deck that stands in the face of everything we know about the format! Modern? Not so much. Shaheen celebrates his big Standard achievement…and mourns Modern!

I began to write my article this week on the flaws of Modern. The format started off like a lemon car you would purchase from the shady car seller, constantly bringing it back for some tweaks and repairs, and then when you think it’s ready to go, it’s dead again. I don’t want to say the format is hopeless, but it requires much more work in order to open the gates to a healthy metagame. Control is missing, midrange is in the form of Jund (with its weak Abzan brother), combo is too inconsistent with the absence of required cantrips, and we are left with aggro domination.

Unbanning cards like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic would help revive blue in Modern, but even with those trademark control cards freed, it probably wouldn’t be enough. I’ve been very active on social media and with my articles here at SCG, trying to make Modern great for the first time, but there is a lot of work to be done. In the meantime, Esper Control is great, and last weekend at the Invitational I was able to play the deck I should have battled with at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon.

My last article had all of the fun details of my Pro Tour adventure, which included the stock list that I edited slightly for the Invitational in New Jersey. I was very confident with my Standard deck and knew that it was strong against the field, with an exceptional matchup against Bant Company. I played against the best deck in Standard three times and easily coasted by my opponents. I played against my buddy Chris VanMeter, and he mentioned how helpless he felt in the two games we played. Esper Control simply has too many battlefield sweepers for Bant Company to combat with limited Spell Quellers and Negates after sideboarding. With the power of mass removal, four Grasp of Darkness, and powerful planeswalkers, the deck to beat in Standard was no match for the icy grip of control. Let’s take a look at the list that led me to an 8-0 finish last weekend:

Invitationals Are Great

I started off the tournament with an intimidating record of 1-3, which was earned through my deep love of Modern. I chose the Jeskai Control deck, which I thought was the best Snapcaster Mage control deck option. I was very, very wrong. I should have seen the warning signs throughout my testing on MTGO and my weak finishes, but I decided to continue forward with the mediocre blue deck. This deck tech took place after I finished my first round of Standard with a quick 2-0. I discussed the deck with Nick Miller prior to the deck tech, declaring that I wouldn’t drop a match in Standard and I would work hard to make him proud. It is risky business doing a deck tech with a guy that starts off 2-3, but I kept my end of the bargain. I finished the day with a 5-3 record and made it into Day 2.

I didn’t really sleep well that night after my abysmal performance in Modern, because I knew I’d have to come back in the morning and play another four grueling rounds with a deck I knew was weak. I started off Day 2 hot, smashing my way to a 3-0 record and on the way to a possible 8-0 run to make the elimination rounds. I knew my Standard deck would not let me down, so I mentally prepared for the final round of Modern in the feature match area.

My opponent was on Jund, so I wasn’t feeling too bad about my chances. With that being said, he easily crushed me 2-0 with a combination of Fulminator Mages and Kolaghan’s Commands, ending my chances at a sixth Invitational Top 8. The good news was there were four more rounds of Standard to really test the Esper Control deck against some of the best players in the United States! I finished the tournament with a Modern record of 4-4, with wins over the mirror twice, Zoo, and a strange U/R Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker deck. If you disregard the mirror victories, my record could have easily been 2-6, but thankfully others thought this deck was decent as well. My Standard performance was a completely different story.

In Standard I finished 15-1 in games, losing one game to Bant Company. The deck was dominating opponents each and every round, which came as a surprise to me as well. I knew the deck was good, but maybe I’m just a tad luckier with Esper Control than others. That was my initial thought, but I then discovered that teammate Joe Lossett was also undefeated with the Soorani version of Esper Control from the Pro Tour, and I was ecstatic!

He actually ended the tournament with a couple draws, but both times his opponents were very dead in the final turns. One of those draws came while Joe was pumping out hundreds of Zombies from an Emblem, and the other draw came from an opponent that was very dead to an armada of planeswalkers on an empty battlefield. Joe was semi-new to the deck, so it was understandable that his rounds were taking a bit longer, and his only loss was to me in the final round in the Esper Control Battle Royale.

My finish was in eighteenth place, dead last of the 12-4s because of my terrible tiebreakers from the 1-3 start. The deck overperformed for both me and Joe but needs a little touchup after playing against some great players last weekend and seeing flaws. The beauty of playing four copies of Oath of Jace and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy is the ability to play these weak cards without penalty and drop them right into the graveyard.

The Maindeck

The changes are minimal, but need to occur in order to make the deck a well-oiled machine in future RPTQs or in Richmond next weekend. The first cut is the Coax from the Blind Eternities in the main deck.

I know that is heartbreaking to some of you, but don’t worry! Coax from the Blind Eternities isn’t leaving the 75 completely. It is a juggernaut in the mirror, versus B/W Control, or against any other villain that is trying to exile our win condition. Emrakul, the Promised End saved the lives of control mages everywhere, making Esper, or any other control combination, great again.

The Coax from the Blind Eternities is officially a sideboard card that ensures safety against hand disruption and other exile effects that may hit our Eldrazi champion. The card was pretty good for me in a few cases, acting as a very specific Dark Petition for Emrakul, the Promised End later in the game. In the final round against Joe Lossett, I ended up rebounding the spell with Narset Transcendent, which ultimately won me the match.

The card can be versatile with other forms of Eldrazi in the sideboard, but I found myself always wanting Emrakul, the Promised End over other options. I tried Oblivion Sower, which was pretty sweet, and ended up choosing my pet card, Fathom Feeder, to come along for the Invitational ride. Fathom Feeder was a neat, low-costed, option, but it ended up being pretty lackluster against the field. If there are more control decks out there, then the little Eldrazi could make an impression; however, that is currently not the case. I cut Fathom Feeder to open a slot for Coax from the Blind Eternities in the sideboard, which left me with one opening in the maindeck.

The maindeck was firing on all cylinders in the tournament and I didn’t really want to change much after. I was discussing options with my best friend forever, Brian Braun-Duin, and we agreed that Pilgrim’s Eye was pretty crappy in the B/G Delirium decks from before. It made me think about its application in Esper Control and I fell in love immediately. Blocking in these midrange decks is worthless; a basic land fetched is just done better by Nissa, Vastwood Seer; and the delirium implications are low because it doesn’t automatically go to the graveyard. In Esper Control, you don’t have access to the legendary Elf, you love to block, and getting a basic land for turn 4 is close to Demonic Tutor. Untapped lands are a precious commodity for new-age control decks, so we take them when an opportunity arises. I swore off playing cards like Murder and Pilgrim’s Eye, but Standard has led us to a strange place in terms of what are acceptable, playable staples these days.

The Sideboard

With a maindeck that has all the tools needed to defeat any foe, the only aspect of Esper Control to address is the sideboard. The sideboard I used for the tournament is a hot mess to say the least. Two Infinite Obliteration is one too many. The Summary Dismissal is not too bad if Emerge is very popular in the metagame, but otherwise it’s not good. There are too many copies of Negate and Duress for a control matchup that just isn’t around. This frees up four slots by cutting the following cards:

1 Duress

1 Negate

1 Summary Dismissal

1 Infinite Obliteration

I wish I had four magical cards that fill those slots and provide the deck perfect execution, but it’s not that simple. There aren’t any other weak matchups that require a ton of sideboard hate besides the control mirror, and that is only due to having to swap out so many dead cards for live ones.

I would definitely add the fourth Transgress the Mind for Bant Company for one of those listed cards. With the final three slots, you have to consider your specific metagame and what you’ve been having issues with. If you are struggling against U/R Thermo-Alchemist, then put in a couple of copies of Call the Bloodline. Humans is one of the easiest matchups I’ve ever played with a control deck in recent history; however, if you are struggling, you may need a little help from a third Liliana, the Last Hope and an additional Ultimate Price. Ojutai’s Command is another card that has a lot of upside in a deck with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. The lifegain, countering a creature with emerge and drawing a card with resurrection are just some of the ways this versatile counterspell finds its way into the lists I have drafted.

My official, updated deck and sideboard for the SCG Tour® tournament in Richmond looks like this:

I didn’t play against any U/R decks at the Invitational, so I feel like I’m due for a couple of rounds against it. I’ve played a ton of games against it online, and found myself winning by a hair and an Emrakul, the Promised End as death loomed over it.

Before our win condition savior, the card Fevered Visions was unbeatable. I cringed at the thought of that enchantment resolving and I knew it was going to be an inevitable loss. The game has changed and now there is no scooping when things are looking grim. Emrakul, the Promised End has given us an out for any horrendous situation we may find ourselves stuck in. The two copies are insurance for this matchup in case they wise up and add a couple of Summary Dismissal to their 75. Having trump cards for potential matchups is never a bad thing, especially if you don’t need the sideboard space.

I was stoked to finish the Invitational with such a strong Standard record and I hope that translates into success in Richmond next weekend!