Hello everyone! Lukas Carlson here reporting from the great area of Madison, Wisconsin. I'll be giving you a look at the Esper Control deck that I played to a Top 4 finish at the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Milwaukee. Before we get into the sweetness that is Esper in this current Standard, let me tell you a little about myself.
I started playing Magic back at the tender age of ten after a long stint with Pokemon. Already fascinated by card games, I loved (and still love) the complexity that Magic brings to a game and a board state while also being so simple at times. After just a year I started playing in competitive tournaments with Junior Super Series and moved my way up the competitive ladder with Pro Tour Qualifiers and other higher-level events. Competing in these events has always been the most fun for me, as I get to exhaust my naturally competitive nature and meet new and interesting people that end up being friends.
As an aside, to all you aspiring competitive players, the best advice I can give is to just play a lot of Magic. Do not be intimidated by the bigger stage, and also remember to have fun at these events. It is just a game at the end of the day.
Now that we have that out of the way, let us get back to the business of the post-Pro Tour Theros Standard world. I have to admit that up until a few months ago I was not a fan of Standard in the slightest. Here are a few numbers for you to digest for a quick minute:
0-2, 0-2, 1-2, 0-2, 2-2, 4-2, 0-2, 4-2, 0-2
Those were my records in the last Standard PTQ season. While I finished with a Top 8 in the last PTQ, I very clearly did not do well in the last iteration of Standard. When Theros was finally released, I was determined to try to avoid the pitfalls I had in the previous Standard. I wanted to find a deck that is powerful, does unfair things, and most importantly is fun to play.
I tried a variety of decks in the beginning. G/W Aggro was sweet with Voice of Resurgence (my favorite card in Standard). Mono-Red Aggro was as Mono-Red Aggro as ever. R/G Monsters just played Domri Rade (my second favorite card in Standard) and huge boom-booms that the opposition had to answer immediately or suffer a quick exit. All of these were appealing, but nothing stood out to me as exciting by any means.
While sitting at my house two days before #SCGMKE browsing the Pro Tour coverage, Andrew Tenjum asked me why I had not considered playing Esper Control. For those of you that do not know, I prefer the Kiblerian type of deck: green aggressive or midrange strategies. I had not touched my Jace, Architect of Thoughts or Supreme Verdicts since Return to Ravnica was released. He told me to just give it a few games to see if I liked it or not.
I fell in love that day with a Sphinx of a different kind.
It feels like the first time!
Here is an objective truth in Standard right now—casting a Sphinx's Revelation is one of the if not the most fun and unfair things you can be doing in the format. Low on life? Revelation! Need an answer to that pesky creature but don't have something in hand yet? Try Sphinxing! I do not think I lost a game in testing when I cast a Sphinx's Revelation for more than three. It truly is the sweetest card, and I now no longer fault the blue players I played last season for casting it. I envy them for being able to play with the card more.
I was absolutely sold on playing a blue deck. After some discussion of a few maindeck cards, here is the 75 that I piloted at the Delta Center in Milwaukee:
Let's take a look at some of the card choices, some obvious and some that can go either way.
Sphinx's Revelation: Obviously. The Big Sphinx Daddy. I have to admit that I love casting it. It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend casting it yourself. Just about every time I played this for more than four cards my opponent immediately scooped, not wanting to face the wrath of my drawn cards.
Elspeth, Sun's Champion: This card is just as good as it is looks and possibly more so. Being able to removal their threats via Supreme Verdicts or multiple removal spells and then follow it up with this haymaker is a pleasure I enjoyed many times last weekend. Ground pounders will never be able to touch Elspeth, and the black removal you have is a great way to protect it against the likes of evildoer Stormbreath Dragon, although sometimes you can choose to not protect it (more on that in a minute). This is the premier finisher that the control decks featuring white have wanted despite Hero's Downfalls and Dreadbores trying to keep her down.
Ultimating Mother Elspeth is surprisingly easy and a great way to end the game on the spot. Multiple times throughout the tournament my opponent could do nothing but watch dishearteningly as Elspeth ticked up to critical mass since they could not attack it through my throng of devoted Soldiers. At one point, I was at two, and my opponent was at a healthy 28 life. One removal of loyalty from an Elspeth later it was two to minus two.
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver (aka Shaheen's Whipping Boy): If you have not already heard or read it, check out Shaheen Soorani's opinion on Ashiok. It is getting a lot of negative press, even being called the Tibalt of control! I admit that when I read the card my first thought was that it does not do anything. I played it out of shear convincing from Andrew that it plays way better than it looks on paper. After playing it in twelve rounds of Standard, I have come to one conclusion:
I still have no idea how good this card is.
Against green-based aggressive and midrange decks, it is reasonable to be able to soak up damage or cast a creature that you exile for hot blocking action. There was even a game in the Swiss portion of the tournament where I put a Kalonian Hydra into play the turn before I was going to ultimate Elspeth.
That being said, I played against almost all green-based decks on the weekend and sided it out a ton in favor of more removal spells and cards that did stuff. It could be better against the other control decks as a pseudo Nephalia Drownyard, but I am still not sold on it. Overall, I think it might have a place in Esper Control, but where and how many is really up for debate.
Azorius Charm & Far // Away: I lump these two together because I think they fit into the category of necessary evils. Azorius Charm wants to be Think Twice, but sadly it knows it will never be as good. Most of the time it is just a cycler in your deck that will randomly Time Ebb an opponent. In a world full of Stormbreath Dragons and Voice of Resurgences, it is not a great one to have. I would be more comfortable with shaving one for something else.
Far // Away is in the same boat. It is not a fancy card, but when you need to get around Rootborn Defenses to deal with tokens, Blood Baron of Vizkopas, and other things, Far // Away gives you a one-for-one deal early and two-for-one value later in the game. It is not fantastic by any stretch, but it does what you need it to do in a pinch. It is possible these should be a number of Divinations, as at times you struggle for a way to replenish your hand if you do not already have a Revelation.
Blood Baron of Vizkopa & Aetherling: Again, I lump these two together because they are creatures in the sideboard that have merit to consider for the maindeck. Blood Baron is an absolute house against a variety of the aggressive decks in the format, and against the control decks he is nearly unstoppable. Aetherling also performs the role of being the late-game finisher that is impossible to deal with once it is in play.
So why are they in the sideboard? I did not want a lot of expensive late-game bombs that would win me the game when you only need one to do that. Elspeth more often fits the bill in that category and also does a lot more than just attack. That being said, with the rise in Dreadbores and Hero's Downfalls being played, diversifying your threats is never a bad thing, and moving an Aetherling and a Blood Baron or two is something that I will be considering for Grand Prix Louisville.
Temple of Deceit & Temple of Silence: I will admit that when these were spoiled as the lands for Theros that I was incredibly disappointed. We were exiting a world where you essentially had 20-24 duals in your deck with the Magic 2010and Innistrad tap lands and entering a world where we get to play more . . . Guildgates. And they are rare!
However, as time has gone by, I have come to realize just how powerful these lands are in this environment. It is surprisingly powerful in this Esper deck. Smoothing your draws with them early in the game is very important against aggressive strategies, and then being able to pick and choose what you draw with Jace, Architect of Thought or a Sphinx's Revelation can be important late game. It can be a complete bummer and leave you in silence when you have an excessive amount of them in your opening hand, but they are deceptively powerful.
Why Play Esper?
I'm glad you asked! Esper Control has a lot going for it right now. It has answers to every card that your opponents can throw at you, and it has a huge top-end card in Sphinx's Revelation. In every part of the game, you are able to address what the other deck can throw at you. With Detention Sphere and Hero's Downfall, you have versatile ways to deal with planeswalkers and creatures. Doom Blades and Supreme Verdicts help keep those big green bad guys at bay. The few counterspells in the deck answer the late-game haymakers that opposing decks might have as well. All in all, it is just a strong choice in the current metagame.
I think this is made even more relevant given the way that Pro Tour Theros played out. Mono-Blue Devotion was the talk of the tournament, putting Team StarCityGames.com member and Madison resident Sam Black in the Top 4 of the event along with two other players. In my experience playing against the deck a number of times, I believe you have a good if not great matchup against it. Supreme Verdict is a sweeper that they cannot interact with. Detention Sphere deals with the very powerful Thassa, God of the Sea. They generally are not able to put enough pressure on you early on in the game, so your big spells end up having a huge impact.
I wish I could say that I felt that confident against the other Devotion decks. Mono-Black and Mono-Red Devotion can be real issues. Mono-Black Devotion leaves Doom Blades rotting in your hand, and Thoughtseize can turn a promising hand into utter trash. While I think it is certainly winnable, it is possible that something may need to be put in the sideboard to address Whip of Erebos / Gray Merchant of Asphodel shenanigans.
Mono-Red Devotion, which I believe to be one of Esper Control's worst matchup, can spit out early guys and leave you at a low enough life total to where their topdecks can beat yours. Hammer of Purphoros can also be an issue without a Detention Sphere. In round 7, Jeremy Stowe slammed a Hammer against me after I had used a Detention Sphere on an irrelevant creature to keep my life total up. Chalk it up to inexperience with the deck, not knowing that Hammer was a maindeck feature of red, or what have you, but it stomped me (although I was disappointed that Jeremy did not yell "it's Hammer time!" when he played it).
Feeling Blue & Loving It
If you are traveling to Louisville like me or rocking the StarCityGames.com Open Series in Seattle this weekend, I think you should give Esper Control a test drive and see how it feels. If you like winning as fast as possible, this is not the deck for you. If you like casting sweet spells and playing intense games of Magic, this is absolutely the deck you should try out. Although I was unable to bring home the trophy in Milwaukee thanks to a spectacular misplay that now the whole world can see, I hope to ride the Sphinx to success in Louisville.
Thanks for reading. I cannot wait to see what some of you are brewing up in the Esper field in the comments, and I look forward to potentially meeting some of you in Louisville!
Have a great week!
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