The format health of Throne of Eldraine Standard has been restored. The bannings that took place last month came at a time where no major tournaments were taking place. The MTG Arena metagame displayed a diverse format via the ladder, with players hitting the high mythic ranks with a variety of midrange, ramp, and control decks. Although aggro is having a rough time in the current metagame, there is no doubt in my mind that there is something in the Mardu colors able to tackle the sluggish field. The only real obstacles for those strategies are the Witch’s Oven decks, especially Jund Sacrifice.
Jund Sacrifice presents a staunch defense against decks that rely on cheap, aggressive creatures. Whether it’s the lifegain preventing the opposing red blasts from finishing the job or Mayhem Devil eliminating every low-toughness creature on the battlefield, Jund Sacrifice seems to have aggro’s number. Some may argue that these decks are in the aggro category, but I do not believe that is the case. Decks with Witch’s Oven play the midrange game with the best of them and do not have many draws that blitz an opponent’s life total early. Even with the absence of a true aggro deck at this exact point in the evolving metagame, Standard is in a really good place right now.
Mythic Championship VII last weekend showcased some of the best players in the world, playing the best decks in the format. With such a small competitive field, one would think that the deck diversity would suffer, which was not the case in this tournament. The variety was heartwaming and even control was represented by more than zero players. I was convinced that no one was going to sleeve up sweepers and luckily I was wrong.
Eric Froehlich, Ben Stark, and Alexander Hayne were bold enough to take the plunge with control in a high-stakes Standard tournament. The first two competitors went with Azorius Control and Hayne decided to play an Esper Control list that was near and dear to my heart. He messaged me the day before decks were due and told me I would be proud of him. He was right and I am happy he made Day 2, as well as represented what I thought to be one of the stronger archetypes currently. He was playing one Hero of Precinct One and leaned heavily on the control interaction instead of the midrange elements that Esper Hero utilizes. For that tournament, I completely support his decision.
Ever since we lost Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Esper Control/Hero have never been the same. That five-drop zone in deckbuilding has been vacant, with absolutely nothing in the format being usable there. I have searched the archives on multiple occasions since, trying to find anything that can be used to establish dominance on the battlefield that isn’t a creature. I begged the research and development gods for a simple Ob Nixilis Reignited reprint, but somehow we got something a whole lot better.
A five-mana multicolor planeswalker is just what the doctor ordered. Hero of Precinct One has been itching to be top-tier again and this card alone may provide the necessary boost to get there. Multicolor cards are vital to fueling the early synergy of a deck using Hero of Precinct One and it is something that I have overlooked in the past. I love Murderous Rider, but I quickly realized that it often performed worse than Mortify.
There aren’t many opposing planeswalkers in the current Standard outside of Nissa, Who Shakes the World, so creature removal is back to a prime spot. Understanding the types of threats out there, Despark has been a nice crutch to lean on if a planeswalker makes it onto the battlefield or a Questing Beast needs to be sent to exile. The move to more multicolor cards has increased Hero of Precinct One’s stock and Ashiok, Nightmare Muse will be the final puzzle piece that the deck has missed for months.
Outside of its fortuitous mana cost, Ashiok, Nightmare Muse has the abilities a control deck with creatures yearns for. The first ability defends the planeswalker with a decent-sized creature, as producing a 2/3 while increasing loyalty is strong on its own. The creature also has synergy with the ultimate ability, creating a fairly large exile pile quickly. Every time the Nightmare token attacks or blocks, the ultimate gets scarier.
It has been too long since control’s last planeswalker that provided creature defense that was cheaper than six mana. Dovin, Grand Arbiter just didn’t do the trick, losing loyalty and providing a creature that could barely handle combat. Meaningful creature production is something that all control mages look for in a Standard planeswalker and Ashiok, Nightmare Muse delivers. It will definitely have a home in any deck with Hero of Precinct One, but it is also a boost for traditional control decks.
The fine folks that create the cards get a lot of heat for their design of five-mana planeswalkers on social media. The “draw a card, kill a thing, and end the game ultimate” is something that many people were tired of seeing. Luckily for those who feel that way, Ashiok, Nightmare Muse is full of unique flavor. The creature creation is just the first piece of outside-the-box thinking. The second ability is what really caught my eye.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Recoil and now it is attached to a planeswalker that I will be playing in Standard for a long time. This imitates that nostalgic spell but tags the exile piece at the end. Another link to the ultimate is fantastic and further increases the capability of broken gameplay from the control sideline. I love the fact that Ashiok, Nightmare Muse can return any nonland permanent, instead of it being limited to dealing with just creatures. Although it isn’t as powerful as the tuck provided by Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, it still provides a decent answer to any problematic permanent. There are also many scenarios where it serves as a Vindicate, setting up a turn where the opponent has no cards and is forced to give up exactly what you returned to their hand.
The card advantage comes from creature production and forcing the opponent to exile cards from their hand. This isn’t the traditional method of advantage that we are used to, but it fits perfectly in the tap-out control strategy that I have been advocating for in this format. Not only are the first two abilities very relevant to the gameplan, the ultimate can be a knock out.
Casting up to three face-up cards from the opponent’s exile without paying their mana costs is a very powerful ultimate because of the first two abilities. It is likely that the two creatures produced by Ashiok, Nightmare Muse find some powerful spell to be used against the opponent from their exile. That quick sequence happens in just three turns. The fact that it only requires two activations before getting to its ultimate is astounding. This explosiveness is tempered by being at the mercy of the opponent’s top cards, but luckily it doesn’t matter how spells ended up in exile.
Ashiok, Nightmare Muse fuels its own ultimate as I have mentioned; however, it still could use a little help from the powerful tools already at our disposal. Despark is a spell that I have used as a one-of in every Esper Control build over the last few months. With this new planeswalker joining the team, it’s time to up the amount of Despark in order to fill the opponent’s exile with threats that we want to take for ourselves one day.
The most dangerous threats in Standard rest at four and five mana, making Despark an easy, multicolor answer that can now be played in multiples. It provides an answer to planeswalkers and creatures alike, but more importantly gives us the opportunity to steal them with the Ashiok, Nightmare Muse ultimate. There are other spells that exile out there like Cry of the Carnarium, Devout Decree, Glass Casket, and Prison Realm, just to name a few. I plan on playing the first two in my future Esper Hero lists; however, I am certain that they will print more effects like these to promote their flavorful new planeswalker.
Theros Beyond Death still has a bit of time before release, but I wanted to share with you all an updated Esper Hero list in preparation. This list is still bringing me success in the current Standard and I simply cut a Bolas’s Citadel and a Tyrant’s Scorn for two Ashiok, Nightmare Muse. Enjoy playing this in the meantime while we wait for our five-mana savior to arrive.