Understanding matchups in Legacy is a little less cut and dry than in other formats. This is because manyLegacy decks have the ability to transform themselves into different archetypes in the middle of the match depending on the situation having multiple game plans within the same deck. One example is Esper Stoneblade which can win with Stoneforge Mystic and Batterskull or with Jace. Another great example is Natural Order which can win with Progenitus or with Knight of the Reliquary. The list goes on and on.
To help better myself and hopefully give some insight to fellow Legacy fans I'm going to do a matchup analysis for a few different Legacy decks.I do understand my limitations and am far from an expert on every single archetype but I'm fortunate to be surrounded by amazing Legacy talents whose brains I can pick from and who are willing to help me out.
I see a lot of benefit to looking a matchup through the eyes of the pilot and I hope to pick up on their thought processes during certain situations. Magic decision-making just like every day decision-making is subjective. So the opinions of others may not be the same as yours which is perfectly fine. Feel free to share those opinions and spark the discussion. I encourage this because ultimately we're trying to expand the Legacy community and help others so we can continue to streamline this format for the coming years.
Okay now that that's out of the way let's dig in!
I'm fortunate today to be working with great Legacy mind Ben Stepka. Some of you may know him already from SCG Open Series coverage most notably his Top 4 finish at the Legacy Open inDenver. Today I'm going to ask him a few questions about one of his favorite decks Esper Stoneblade. He feels strongly about the deck's position in the current Legacy format so he's going to break down the deck and its matchups.
Let's start off with his decklist:
Why play Esper Stoneblade?
The reason why I love Esper Stoneblade so much is because it plays to my strengths. I'm one of those sadistically deranged people who loves long grindy games won only when my opponents know they've exhausted even the slightest chance of winning.
Another reason why I love this deck is that I like to be the master of every situation while playing Magic. Having a deck filled with answers to a great deal of situations is my cup of tea. I also like having multiple angles of attack to win. This deck can win both by attacking and not touching the opponent's life total while exiling their brains into oblivion.
Playing with Jace the Mind Sculptor is just about the greatest reason to play with this deck. He's the ultimate win condition for people who love to win while their opponents are helpless. It takes a minimum of six turns to win with Jace's ultimate if he's unhindered. During those turns there's a superior chance that the opposition's chances of winning will dwindle more and more. I strongly feel that Esper Stoneblade is one of the best if not the best shell for Jace to be used to his full potential.
What's Esper Stoneblade's general game plan?
This deck isn't aggressive. If winning by turn 4 is something you want to be doing please pick another deck. Sure some games will be won off the back of a turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic searching up Batterskull and riding it to victory. The beauty of Esper Stoneblade is that Stoneforge into Batterskull is only one drop of water in a very large pond.
Most of the games play out as follows (options separated by ;):
- Play a land; cast Inquisition of Kozilek / Thoughtseize to gain information and possibly take a win condition; say go.
- Play a land; Swords opponent's turn 1 play; cast Stoneforge / Dark Confidant if the coast is clear; say go.
- Play a land; react to whatever opponent does; flash in equipment; cast Lingering Souls; say go.
- Play a land react more; cast Jace; say go.
- Play a land react more; cast win condition; say go.
As seen above much of this deck's game plan is to play a land and react to whatever the opposition plays. Then when it ' safe you play one of the deck's win conditions. Lots of times this means that I'll cast Swords to Plowshares rather aggressively to keep the opponent's threats off the board or cast Lingering Souls and use the Spirit tokens to buy a few turns via chump blocks.
Against aggressive decks Snapcaster Mage is Swords to Plowshares five through seven. Against slower controlling and combo decks Snapcaster Mage doubles as a counterspell or discard. In a pinch Snapcaster Mage is a Brainstorm. Only use Snapcaster Mage when it's profitable to do so. If nothing is happening it's better to pass the turn without casting Snapcaster than wasting Snapcaster much like Brainstorm.
While playing this deck assessing the battlefield as to whether or not a creature or other permanent is a 'threat' has to be done continuously.
- Can I afford to let Delver of Secrets flip and take three damage on the off chance I can use this Swords to Plowshares on a Tarmogoyf then cast this Lingering Souls in my hand to double block the Delver and kill it?
- Is it worth it to me to sacrifice my Snapcaster Mage to chump block while not gaining any value by flashing back a spell in my graveyard?
- Should I cast Jace the Mind Sculptor as a four mana Unsummon knowing he will die from the next attack?
These are few of the many questions I ask myself at some point during a match.
Like all things practice makes proficient. This isn't a deck that can be played cold by an inexperienced player. If Esper Stoneblade is your deck of choice time must be taken to 'learn the ropes'. Wins will come with time. Don't give up!
Again the goal of this deck is to exhaust your opponent's resources and win. The later the game goes versus most decks the higher percentage chance Esper Stoneblade will win.
I noticed you play Dark Confidant in your build. Why is that?
I'm not exactly sure why I haven't seen him more in Esper Stoneblade. He does everything this deck is trying to do: bury your opponent under an extreme amount of card advantage. Whether it's by flashing back a spell with Snapcaster Mage or searching for a win condition with Stoneforge Mystic this deck is full of two-for-ones. Dark Confidant is an X-for-one. The longer he stays on the battlefield the more cards you draw and the more likely you are to win. With Dark Confidant your hand should always be full of options (cards).
Any other cards in your version that stand out compared to other versions?
The rest of the deck is fairly stock with the exception of Flusterstorm. Flusterstorm is my fifth and sixth copy of Force of Will against combo. The only card it doesn't counter that is used a fair amount is Goblin Charbelcher. It does work well against their Rituals leading up to it though.
This entire matchup hinges on their eight Lords that give their team Islandwalk. Game 1 you want to make them discard all their Lords or send them all farming. Priority number one is dealing with Lord of Atlantis and Master of Pearl Trident. The next scariest card is Coralhelm Commander. The rest of the deck is bad vanilla creatures whose only saving grace is their creature type: Merfolk.
Playing around Daze with Stoneforge Mystic is essential versus Merfolk. It's the best win condition Esper has against the fishies. When Stoneforge Mystic resolves 99% of the time it's correct to fetch Umezawa's Jitte. Jitte gives more options than Batterskull because there's a good chance the Merfolk army will be unblockable. If this is the case Batterskull's lifelink will most likely not be enough to offset the life loss caused by massive Merfolk swinging into the red zone. Jitte in conjunction with other removal gives Esper the ability to come from behind and win or to just never fall behind.
It's possible but unlikely to have access to the six lands Esper contains that aren't Islands and play the deck like it's Dead Guy Ale making their Islandwalking Lords irrelevant. Then Batterskull might be the correct choice but I'd still probably fetch Jitte.
The only time I'd ever fetch Batterskull over Jitte against Merfolk is if Stoneforge Mystic is the only creature I have access to. Jitte is pretty worthless without a creature to use it. Hopefully that will never be the case since my version of Esper Stoneblade runs four more creatures than 'stock' versions.
Engineered Explosives is great against Merfolk game 1 because every single one of its scary cards has a CMC of two. Since Merfolk really can't afford to not play lots of creatures at once EE usually is at least a three-for-one.
Games 2 and 3 are a little less stressful because the deck has access to a new Merfolk-killing gem: Supreme Verdict. Upon resolution there's a good chance that Esper will be so far ahead of Merfolk that they won't be able to recover. The best part about it is that Merfolk has nothing they can do to prevent it aside from playing Mindbreak Trap.
Notice how I take out 100% of the counterspells in this matchup. They're next to worthless against Merfolk because it runs Aether Vial. In order to 'turn on' counterspells Aether Vial has to be countered or discarded in the first place. So why not make Aether Vial almost irrelevant (I know it still is basically a Ritual every turn) and just kill all the Merfolk that hit the board?
This matchup is all about surviving long enough to assemble Voltron. Goblins can't beat a Jitte and REALLY can't beat a Jitte equipped to a Batterskull. I understand that Goblins' players think Goblin Tinkerer and Tuktuk Scrapper are their answer to Jitte and Batterskull but as long as the Esper Stoneblade player plays around them (and they're easily played around) the Esper player should have no problem.
Lingering Souls is really good against Goblins as well. Combined with discard Engineered Explosives and Swords to Plowshares with Snapcaster stalling Goblins out long enough to win shouldn't be a problem.
If Goblins plays a turn 1 Lackey kill it if possible. Bad things happen when Lackey deals damage to a player.
The highest priority targets for removal spells: turn 1 Goblin Lackey Goblin Warchief and Goblin Chieftain. Giving all Goblins haste isn't something Esper Stoneblade can deal with easily if it's during the early stages of the game.
The highest priority targets for discard spells: Goblin Ringleader Siege-Gang Commander and Krenko Mob Boss followed by the above list. Giving Goblins card advantage is bad and each of these cards is superb at doing that. Please be smart when using discard. If played early in the game sometimes it's correct not to take Ringleader and instead take Goblin Warchief. But if the Goblins' player has access to enough mana to cast any of the listed cards take them!
I leave Counterspell in and take one Jace out only because countering a Goblin Ringleader up to two times is very good. Unlike Merfolk which can leave their Aether Vial with two counters for the entire game Goblins has a wide range of CMCs on their creatures. It's much harder for Goblins to have a Vial set on two three and four so Counterspell is almost always live.
I've only lost one game to Goblins in the past three matches that I've faced it with this deck. Note that Krenko Mob Boss hurts. I had the option to discard either Krenko or Ringleader and I chose poorly.
On the turn that I hit zero I'll be shot by Krenko.
Please take whatever precautions are necessary to avert this terrible disaster.
I don't believe this matchup is a problem at all for a good Esper player. Game 1 Esper Stoneblade is heavily favored. RUG Delver relies a lot on controlling the tempo of the game whether it be through mana denial (Stifle / Wasteland) countering spells (Force of Will Daze Spell Pierce) or killing blockers (Lightning Bolt). Any interruption to their control and RUG starts to flounder and Esper is all about mucking up the works. Esper has the ability to fetch all basics and play around RUG's situational counterspells. Running spells into Daze isn't part of the game plan unless it's to get rid of the Daze so a haymaker can resolve the following turn.
Another huge reason Esper is favored is that RUG Delver has no way to destroy equipment pre-sideboard and the life gain from Batterskull and Jitte is really hard for RUG to deal with. And RUG has a very very hard time dealing with Lingering Souls.
It's a little harder for Esper if RUG is packing Stifle since Esper has so many great targets for it: EE activation living weapon Stoneforge Mystic (nice Squire bro) and Jace's abilities. Don't worry though. RUG only has four copies of Stifle (eight if they use Snapcaster) and Esper has many many more targets. At some point RUG will run out. Getting to that point is the goal.
Highest priority targets for discard spells: Nimble Mongoose Delver of Secrets Tarmogoyf Snapcaster Mage. Sometimes it's best to take a troublesome spell such as Stifle though especially if the creature can be easily dealt with by different means.
Most RUG decks have a total of fifteen or sixteen creatures and four Lightning Bolts as win conditions so the name of the game is killing every creature they lay and either landing a Jace or Batterskull to seal the game up. Engineered Explosives is the absolute best and most efficient way to accomplish this. All their creatures have CMCs of two or less and RUG relies heavily on the shroud of Nimble Mongoose to give targeted removal fits. Good thing EE doesn't target and Batterskull is bigger than every creature in RUG's deck besides Tarmogoyf. Vendilion Clique doubles as a removal spell in this matchup very nicely. I have no problem flashing in a Clique during combat to block a Nimble Mongoose or Delver of Secrets and do it often.
I personally play very defensive against RUG early. I rarely attack unless I can't use the creature to block usually against a flipped Delver. Game 1 it's ok to swarm the board with Spirit tokens as blockers and equipment wearers but in post-board games it's smarter to only have two Spirits out at a time because Sulfur Elemental is a real card. I also feel it's correct to fetch Batterskull almost 100% of the time with Stoneforge Mystic. The only time I suggest not to is if Jitte can be immediately equipped and attacked with the turn it's fetched.
Post-board Esper brings in even more ways to deal with RUG's creatures. Perish is an absolute beating. Anything that's a one-sided Wrath of God is amazing. Detention Sphere acts as a mini Engineered Explosives but sometimes it can remove RUG's entire army. Path to Exile is the best removal spell ever printed when the deck it's being used against has zero basic lands such as RUG. Supreme Verdict is as good against RUG as it is against Merfolk.
The game plan is the same games 2 and 3: kill every creature RUG lays. It's much easier when a whopping fourteen of Esper's cards do just that and seven of the fourteen kill creatures in multiples. The best part is that Esper only loses one win condition post-board.
RUG will most likely side in some number of Ancient Grudge and Sulfur Elemental to deal with Esper's equipment and Lingering Souls. As stated above be careful how many Spirits are in play at once. Allowing RUG to turn Sulfur Elemental into their own Wrath of God isn't good for the home team. And just like against Goblins it's possible to make Ancient Grudge a dead card. One such way is to only put Batterskull into play if enough mana (three) is available to bounce it in response to Ancient Grudge being cast.
I'll be completely honest: U/W Miracles is rough for Esper Stoneblade simply because the Counter-Top lock is basically lights out. Our game plan is to prevent the lock from happening at all costs. Discard should always take Counterbalance and counterspells should be used to prevent Counterbalance from resolving. If Counterbalance does resolve about the only thing Esper Stoneblade can do is play the "Counterbalance game" of throwing out a sacrificial spell to see what's on top then playing a spell whose CMC equals the CMC of the top card of Miracles' library. Another option is to play an Engineered Explosives on sunburst of two but with a high enough CMC (via using the same colored mana) to render Counterbalance useless. The only issue is that Miracles runs more counterspells than Esper does.
Esper Stoneblade isn't completely dead in the water against Miracles though. A timely discard spell taking Counterbalance or a Counterspell followed by a threat such as Dark Confidant or Lingering Souls puts Esper way ahead. Discard shines brightly in this matchup. Sometimes Miracles just won't have the answer to Esper's threat as well. Esper is definitely the beatdown in this matchup because Miracles has a far better late game against Esper than Esper does against Miracles.
Swords to Plowshares is very lackluster against Miracles because sending one Angel token to the farm from a very large Entreat the Angels really isn't what Esper wants to be doing. Supreme Verdict is Esper's reset button. Detention Sphere is also very good against Miracles' threats. Spell Pierce allows Esper to take on a bit more of a control role games 2 and 3 when used with Vendilion Clique's flash as it's able to give Esper a threat without having to tap out.
This matchup should be practiced a lot to get proficient at it since it's such a tough matchup for Esper and is currently played a lot at large tournaments like SCG Legacy Opens.
Esper Stoneblade's plan game 1 against Maverick is the same as against RUG Goblins and Merfolk: kill every creature Maverick plays. The fact that Maverick has access to Mother of Runes is a slight bump in the road. However just like against Nimble Mongoose from RUG Engineered Explosives takes care of Mother of Runes just fine. The best part is that Maverick plays no counterspells so Engineered Explosives is guaranteed to resolve.
Post-board is much easier than pre-board. Perish is completely backbreaking against Maverick since it hits everything but Stoneforge Mystic Mother of Runes and Thalia. Zealous Persecution makes Maverick's attacks and blocks awkward and doubles as a Wrath of God against Maverick's mana dorks Mother of Runes and Thalia. The only thing Maverick brings in that can be very annoying is Choke but it can be countered and dealt with via Engineered Explosives or Detention Sphere.
This is where it becomes very apparent how beastly Dark Confidant really is. Since the game plan of both decks is exactly the same (duh?) having a card like Dark Confidant as an additional way to efficiently gain card advantage is huge. If Dark Confidant draws even two cards the home team is running away with the game.
Esper Stoneblade's biggest threats in the mirror: Stoneforge Mystic (Batterskull) Jace the Mind Sculptor and Dark Confidant (if played). Take those threats away and the opposition will be left with nothing but their *cards* in their hands.
Targeted discard can be played in one of two ways: immediately as soon as drawn or passively waiting until the opponent casts Stoneforge Mystic and taking whatever they fetch. The second plan is only viable until the opponent has seven mana available to them. At that point Batterskull can be cast immediately. Jitte isn't that big of deal unless you can't deal with the opposing creatures. Plan wisely.
Vendilion Clique should only be used in response to a Stoneforge Mystic activation or to find out information if the opponent has a hand full of cards and hasn't played anything for a long time. Use Vendilion Clique sparingly to get the most value from it.
Supreme Verdict is always an option as well. I don't feel it's necessary because Esper's entire maindeck minus Force of Will is great against the mirror. I've had people side into a few Surgical Extractions against me. I'm not sure I agree with this tactic because Esper's threats and answers to said threats are so diverse. I've won many a mirror off the back of a single Snapcaster Mage beating in for twenty.
I hope you enjoyed looking at Esper Stoneblade through the eyes of a player who loves to pilot it. I know I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to sit down and listen to Ben's opinion about Esper Stoneblade and why he feels so strongly about the decks power. I really want to thank Ben for his time and for giving us his opinions about the deck and its matchups.
Thanks for reading!