What can be said about Grand Prix Charlotte that hasn't already been said about the Selesnya mirror match?
It was heavily populated.
Thousands of players played in a tournament last weekend that greatly exceeded all expectations and is now a milestone in Magic's still rather brief history. It was the biggest Magic tournament ever. Throughout the event, I was constantly struck by two competing feelings. One was a sense of happiness to be part of such an event. The other was a wish that I had simply skipped the tournament and avoided the hunger, lack of sleep, long wait times, and other unfortunate realities of a tournament that involves seventeen grueling rounds being played in such a short period of time.
One such reality was that a 3-5 record on Day 2 wasted my 8-0-1 start and left me in 103rd place, one match win out of prize.
The weekend was jam-packed, from experiencing Gatecrash Limited, to the highs and lows of my own tournament, to the logistics of running an event that shattered all size records, to how this tournament will affect the future of GPs. How do you write about it all? What do you choose to write about? In fact, I had such a hard time figuring out what to write about GP Charlotte that I did what any self-respecting Magic player would do to settle such a dilemma.
I decided to write about something else instead.
So how about that Esper Control deck? Pretty sweet, am I right?
Overshadowed by the madness of last weekend is that there is this little format called Standard that is still being fleshed out after the influx of new decks and ideas that the Pro Tour gave us.
Most of the archetypes from the Top 8 of Pro Tour Gatecrash have gotten a fair amount of press, with one exception. I have seen very little written about Ben Stark's Esper Control list, and that honestly surprises me. Why? Because the deck is really good.
For the last month, I haven't played much Magic Online at all. Quite simply, I haven't wanted to. But after playing this deck against Todd Anderson in a Versus video that came out last Friday,* I decided to fire up Magic Online to build it. Since then, I've played a lot with it. I simply love the deck. More importantly, the deck loves me. I've enjoyed a lot of success with Esper, and I think it's a very strong contender in Standard right now.
Before I explain what makes the deck good and why you should play it, let me first begin by giving you my current list. It's not far off the original list—in fact, the maindeck is still the same—but I have made a few changes to the sideboard that I will talk about in more detail later.
Why Play Esper?
Since I've already gushed about how awesome Esper is, I guess you probably want to know what actually makes the deck worth playing. What's the selling point? Why would you want to stop casting Burning-Tree Emissary and start casting Dramatic Rescue?
There are three main reasons why I think you should be playing Esper Control.
1. It has the best end game.
The longer a game goes, the more likely it is that you will win it. Once you get to the point where you can start chaining Sphinx's Revelation into more Sphinx's Revelations, it's lights out for your opponent. What deck can compete with that?
What about Garruk, Liliana, and Rakdos's Return from Jund? Planeswalking is a dirty business in need of some Planar Cleansing. We provide that service for free. Rakdos's Return is conveniently countered by both Sphinx's Revelation in response (I'll draw seven, then discard five?) and Dissipate.
What about other Sphinx's Revelation decks? Decks like U/W/R and Bant can surely match your end game because they too have access to Sphinx's Revelation, right? The difference between Esper and those decks is that your win condition is completely resilient to their Sphinx's Revelations, and, in fact, they have to be careful because their Revelations accelerate your win condition. In a match where both decks are gaining a lot of life and drawing a lot of answers, Nephalia Drownyard is king. Drown them with their card advantage.
The only decks that can reasonably hope to keep up in the late game are the Reanimator decks, which also have access to a lot of card advantage. Even so, you can often outlast them.
2. The deck doesn't waste any slots.
The beauty of having a win condition like Nephalia Drownyard is that you don't have to dedicate any cards in your deck for the purpose of actually winning the game. As good as Sphinx's Revelation is, it can't win the game for you by itself. Normally, this means you have to have anywhere from three to six cards in your deck that are capable of finishing the game. This dilutes your deck and leads to awkward draws where your win conditions are dead cards in your opening hand and you die before you can get any use out of them.
By virtue of your win condition being a land, it means every single nonland card in the deck can be dedicated to the singular purpose of ensuring you make it to the end game where Nephalia Drownyard can take over.
Every single nonland card is either a spell that interacts with your opponent's strategy (or draws you cards that do) or is a defensive creature that interacts favorably with those spells.
There are no wasted slots.
3. The cards are versatile.
For anyone who has played Standard for a long time, there's no real need to explain how versatile Snapcaster Mage and Restoration Angel are. Snapcaster Mage can be a Nekrataal, a Mystic Snake, or an extra copy of a Supreme Verdict or Sphinx's Revelation. Snapcaster Mage is the Visa of Esper Control. It's everywhere you want to be.
Restoration Angel is the Deion Sanders of your deck. She plays both offense and defense. She protects your creatures from removal and gives you extra uses out of your Snapcaster Mages and Augur of Bolas. She also plays Special Teams.
But let's not forget Augur of Bolas. Augur of Bolas is the Michael Jordan of your deck, and he is by far the most versatile member of your team! When he hits that key Supreme Verdict or Sphinx's Revelation, he's like Jordan draining the jump shot to win the NBA finals against the Utah Jazz. Perfection.
When he bricks on a spell, he's Michael Jordan playing baseball.
He ranges from being an awesome value creature with upside to being a Maritime Guard that puts those two Snapcaster Mages you wanted to the bottom of your deck. If that isn't versatility, then, honestly, what is?
Beyond the creatures, the spells in the deck are also multifaceted. Against an aggressive deck, Sphinx's Revelation gains you enough life to put the game away. Against a midrange deck, it draws you enough cards to put the game away. Azorius Charm can either be the best removal spell against an aggressive deck—unconditionally getting rid of their attacker and sometimes stifling them by forcing them to draw it again—or it can help draw you to your powerful cards in matchups where attacking isn't as relevant.
Even Dramatic Rescue has some versatility. You can rebuy one of your value creatures with it, or you can use it as a removal spell to give you time.
Why does versatility matter? Essentially, it means that your cards will be useful in any matchup regardless of what your opponent is trying to do. That's very important, and a lack of versatility can be the death knell for many decks. If those decks draw the wrong half of their deck to fight against their opponent's strategy, they won't win.
The sweet thing about Esper is that there really isn't a "wrong half." Sure, you can draw only Supreme Verdicts in the mirror match and lose to a Jace, Memory Adept or Drownyard, but for the most part your spells are good in any matchup.
Against aggro, Augur of Bolas draws you removal spells and blocks 2/2 creatures all day. Against control, it draws you Dissipates and Sphinx's Revelations and puts marginal pressure on planeswalkers. That's what I mean by versatility, and it's one of the primary reasons Esper is a good deck right now.
Tips for Playing the Deck
I think Esper is a difficult deck to play optimally. Do you cast Sphinx's Revelation for three, or do you Dissipate your opponent's spell? Do you play an untapped land on turn 2 to cast Think Twice, or do you play a tapped land so that your mana will be perfect on turn 4 to cast Supreme Verdict?
Almost every turn you are faced with a number of decisions to make. A lot of decks don't give you time to correct things if you make the wrong one. For that reason, I think it's important to go over some guidelines for playing the deck.
First of all, in the early turns of the game, you want to pay attention to your mana base and try to sculpt it so you are able to cast spells later on. Try to ensure you have UWW on turn 4 so you can cast Supreme Verdict, and try to make sure that you have WWW on turn 6 so you can cast Planar Cleansing, even if you don't have these cards in your hand yet. This might mean casting a main phase Think Twice early on in the game in hopes of drawing a white source to play on your turn.
Secondly, the most important thing to remember with the deck is that your end game trumps theirs. For that reason, at all times you should play with a singular purpose: survive!
There's nothing wrong with casting Supreme Verdict on a single creature. There is no shame in three for one-ing yourself to get rid of your opponent's Liliana of the Veil. It really doesn't matter how little "value" you get out of your cards as long as they are stopping your opponent from killing you and building towards the end game.
The neat thing about Sphinx's Revelation is that it undoes every advantage your opponent has gained. You three for one'd yourself to kill Liliana? Congratulations, you survived long enough to cast a Sphinx's Revelation for four, and now your opponent is behind. For this reason, it's generally best to cast something every turn in the early stages of the game, even if it's not necessarily the most optimal use of the spell.
Another tip is that you can Azorius Charm a problematic creature to the top of your opponent's deck and then use Drownyard to mill it away. This is especially good against creatures like Obzedat and Falkenrath Aristocrat that otherwise do a good job of avoiding your other removal spells.
One last rule of thumb. Oftentimes, on turn 2 you are faced with the choice between casting Augur of Bolas and Think Twice. Unless you desperately need the Augur to block, my general rule is to cast Think Twice if you need to hit land drops and to cast Augur if you already have plenty of lands and thus want to draw spells. It's fairly straightforward, but the natural tendency is to want to always play the Augur of Bolas and only cast Think Twice when you don't have anything else to cast. Sometimes you have to fight that tendency and cast the Think Twice instead.
The Card Choices
There are a number of non-traditional card choices in this list as well as a number of typical Esper Control staples that are absent. I'm going to cover a number of these and explain why they are in the deck or why they missed the cut.
Why play Planar Cleansing over Terminus?
Planar Cleansing is really just a better Terminus right now. By playing Planar Cleansing, you get to play both Terminus and Detention Sphere in the same card. Detention Sphere is a really awkward card in this deck. You can't get it with Augur of Bolas. You can't Snapcast it. It's typically inefficient at removing whatever threat you want to hit with it. It can also give your opponent good value if they have cards like Abrupt Decay to remove it.
Planar Cleansing lets you get that same effect and doesn't have the downside of being a vulnerable enchantment. Did I mention it also Wraths your opponent?
Doesn't Terminus have the upside of miracle, though? Well, yes, but how often do you really miracle Terminus? Augur of Bolas and Sphinx's Revelation both ensure it ends up in your hand and not miracled, and typically speaking you have to tap out to cast Think Twice, so you aren't really getting many opportunities to miracle it on their turn.
And if you're rarely hitting the miracle, then there's no real reason to play it over something more powerful at the same mana cost, like Planar Cleansing.
Why not play planeswalkers and Lingering Souls?
To put it bluntly, I don't think either of those are very good in this deck. You are basically never killing your opponent with damage, so all Lingering Souls does is create chump blockers and very slowly pressure planeswalkers. I'd rather just play a real removal spell on my opponent's creature or use something more efficient, such as Restoration Angel or Planar Cleansing, to handle my opponent's planeswalkers.
As for planeswalkers of your own, I think they are way too slow in a control deck to compete in this format. When your opponent is curving Champion of the Parish into Burning-Tree Emissary and Mayor of Avabruck, do you want to be stuck with a Jace, Memory Adept or even a Sorin, Lord of Innistrad in hand? Getting marginal value every turn starting on turn 4 just isn't going to cut it against decks that can fairly consistently kill you by then.
Is Dramatic Rescue actually any good?
Yes, it is. I have consistently been impressed with Dramatic Rescue. The life gain is very relevant and worth paying the extra mana over Unsummon. Since you only have one copy and since Sphinx's Revelation can power through your deck in huge chunks, you typically don't see the card until later in the game where the extra mana is all but irrelevant anyway. I think it's also very important to have access to at least one card in your deck that can be thrown at any creature at any time for whatever reason. Maybe your opponent is casting Harvest Pyre on their Boros Reckoner for 29, or they just flashed in a Restoration Angel to block yours and protect their planeswalker.
Orzhov Charm is similar but involves life loss instead of life gain. Keep in mind that once you start chaining Sphinx's Revelations, it doesn't really matter that you lost card advantage to cast Dramatic Rescue. You will have all the cards you could ever want then. All that matters is that you didn't die.
It's also powerful in the mirror match since it turns off Drownyard, Jace, and Psychic Spiral.
In the original list, this was Angel of Serenity, but I found Angel was pretty redundant. The matchups you brought her in (typically midrange decks) were already very good matchups, and while Angel of Serenity would end the game, you didn't actually need her to win.
I found Obzedat is similarly good against those same midrange decks but also serves a number of other purposes. It's good against hyperaggressive decks, whereas Angel of Serenity was usually too slow.
Most importantly, Obzedat counters your opponent's Obzedat. If your opponent casts Obzedat and then never attacks with it into your Azorius Charms, it can be very difficult to remove, and the two damage a turn can be tough to successfully race. Much like with Geist of Saint Traft, the best way to beat the card is to just play it yourself!
I think this was a brilliant innovation for the deck. If your opponent can't remove Gloom Surgeon, he is much better than any removal spell you can possibly have against the really fast aggro decks since he is going to typically kill off a creature every time they attack and doesn't require you to hold open the right mana at the right time. It just so happens that there are a number of decks that play upwards of 30 creatures and no more than four removal spells. Sounds like the perfect scenario for the Gloom to shine.
This is a very useful catchall card to have. I mostly added this card to the deck because the threat of Witchbane Orb is so strong. It's almost impossible to beat an opposing Witchbane Orb, and you might not always want to have to keep in cards like Planar Cleansing against decks that could be packing it.
It's also good against Detention Sphere, Assemble the Legion, Staff of Nin, Runechanter's Pike, and other similar cards that haven't seen a whole lot of play lately but are starting to increase in popularity. It has a wide variety of uses against some of the most problematic cards in the format (noncreatures). Sounds like a good deal for a card that just takes up one sideboard slot.
In a format that changes as rapidly as this Standard one, it would be pretty shortsighted to say that Esper will still be a good metagame choice in a few weeks. It's powerful right now, but it's impossible to say what things will look like in a week or two's time. If you are interested in beating your opponent three cards at a time, then there is really no time like the present to pick up the deck.
I hope you enjoy playing it as much as I have.
Just don't get paired against the guy running Battle of Wits.**
Thanks for reading,
@BraunDuinIt on Twitter
BBD on Magic Online
* If you didn't watch the video, here is a brief recap of the important info: I won and Todd Anderson lost.
** There is a movie coming out in late 2013 starring Burt Reynolds. It's about a former Pro MTG prison inmate who is forced to play Esper against a prison guard piloting Battle of Wits. The movie is tentatively titled The Longest DrownYard.