"Erebos is black
Thassa is blue
He's a lucksack
And she is too."
Standard right now feels a lot like a rivalry game between two teams in the NFC North. To the football uninitiated, the NFC North is sometimes affectionately referred to as the "Black and Blue Division." For a time scholars believed it was labeled such because of the hard physicality exhibited in games between teams in the division. Roughly twelve minutes ago that theory was rejected by one such "leading scholar" who has chosen to remain unnamed. I will honor his request. The currently prominent idea is that the Bears, Packers, Vikings, and Lions are avid Nightveil Specter fans. It just fits.
And honestly, who isn't a fan of Nightveil Specter? I know some people love the thrill of trying to draw a one outer to win a game they are way behind in. Can I rip that Bonfire? But honestly, that's so last year. This season trying to win by hitting your opponent's one outer is what's in vogue. Can I rip your Cyclonic Rift? Who knew so much excitement could be bottled up in such a small frame? It turns out lots of people actually.
What's that? No, that cannot be true. You must be going mad. Are you suggesting that you might be one of the few people who doesn't thoroughly enjoy a good riveting game of the Mono-Black Devotion mirror? How can this be? Everyone loves it. My mother texted me last week telling me about how she destroyed my father with Thoughtseize into Pack Rat on her mull to five. My grandmother savaged her FNM with removal into removal into Demon. Trigger! It's what's hip. It's what all the kids are doing.
I guess it's possible that it's not for everyone though. If you're one of the lone stalwarts trying to hold out against the wave of devotion decks tearing open Standard, then read on.
A lot of articles lately have focused on Mono-Blue Devotion or Mono-Black Devotion. What makes them tick? What minor adjustments should you make to gain that ever-so-slight edge in the mirror match? On the other hand, not as much emphasis is being placed on how to beat them. Are there cards in the format that aren't getting their due? Are there decks that have been overlooked?
I feel like I have found one such deck. I've spent the past few days testing and tuning this list, trying to figure out the best configuration. I haven't found it, but I've been winning more and more as I've tuned so I feel like I'm moving in the right direction.
The deck is Esper Control.
I will say immediately that the next step is getting rid of Ultimate Price and Azorius Charm. I recently used Azorius Charm to seal the wood on my porch while also giving it a rich mahogany color. The card is stains. Spending two mana to cycle isn't worth a slot in your deck, yet that's essentially what Azorius Charm is the majority of the time. Having to wait until your opponent attacks to get rid of a creature isn't the best thing when cards like Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx exist. Also, having them draw the creature again is actually a liability a lot of the time since you want to keep that creature off the table permanently and limit their devotion.
Ultimate Price appears to be about 24 tickets on Magic Online since that's roughly how much I've lost when that card is in my hand and I'm being plinked away by a Nightveil Specter, Frostburn Weird, Rakdos Cackler, or Mutavault. While it's a nice way to kill a Pack Rat and a Desecration Demon, the drawback is simply too real.
A few things might be immediately apparent about my version of Esper that differ from other versions. For one, I don't have any countermagic anywhere in the maindeck, and only two Gainsays in the side means spells will generally resolve. Secondly, I have passed on Aetherling as a win condition and have instead opted to go with "The Baron" as they call him in polite company. You don't want to know what they call him in impolite company.*
To put things bluntly, I think counterspells suck. I hate trying to rely on reactive cards in a format where Thoughtseize is arguably the best card. I don't want to sit there with a Dissolve, trying to find the right time to get value from it, and just lose to my opponent ripping a Thoughtseize off the top followed by some haymaker. I'd rather have proactive cards so that even if I do get my hand destroyed by Thoughtseize I can still just cast my answers off the top when I draw them. Better yet, I'd rather just use Thoughtseize to strip the threat away in the first place.
As for Blood Baron of Vizkopa, surprisingly enough the card has been completely dominant in most matchups except Mono-Black, where it has merely been ok. That's not to say it's bad against Mono-Black, but if you're trying to win with Blood Baron against an active Underworld Connections, they will usually still bury you with card advantage. Between Devour Flesh, Erebos, and Mutavault, they actually have a surprising number of ways to not die to it. That's not including the situations where they just Gray Merchant of Asphodel you a few times.
Aetherling is a good card, don't get me wrong, but it's mostly just used to lock up games where you're ahead or win games in super grind fests like the control mirror. I don't think Aetherling really is where you want to be in Standard right now. It's actually not very difficult for either of the dominant devotion decks to beat an Aetherling even if you get it into play relatively early.
"The Baron" comes down early enough to affect the board in a reasonable time frame. Thanks to his protections, you don't have to leave open a blue mana to ensure he will stick around until the next turn. Sure, the errant Devour Flesh or Rapid Hybridization may do him wrong, but most of the time you will have a chance to untap with him. It's rare that a single Baron will win you the game, but it usually stalls the board or stabilizes long enough for a big Revelation or Elspeth to start taking over. Sometimes you can even start chaining Barons together and just run your opponent over with two or three of them. We call that the Baron Geddon.
Also, you haven't lived until you've used a Sphinx's Revelation to grow your Blood Baron into a 10/10 flying machine of death and destruction before attacking. Overkill perhaps, but it's still pure value.
Elspeth is another card that has started to fall out of favor in control builds, but I actually think she is just absolutely fantastic right now. In the Dark Heliod deck I wrote about last week, I had the full four Elspeths and didn't want fewer. Here I've opted for a more conservative two copies since we have Revelation to dig to them and don't have Nykthos to make her easier to cast. Still, I find that there are a lot of situations where Elspeth is the card I'm digging for or the card I most want to draw.
The last card that may turn some heads is Dimir Charm. That card is finally starting to get its due. Mutavault, Nightveil Specter, Pack Rat, Master of Waves, and Frostburn Weird are the most dominant creatures in Standard right now. Dimir Charm conveniently handles all of them. Well, most of the time. You have to time it right to get a Frostburn Weird.
While it's fairly unlikely that you'll use the other two abilities that often, it's still pretty awesome that you get some added versatility along with one of the strongest removal spells in the format right now. That time you counter a Mizzium Mortars or Rakdos's Return you'll be happy you recognized the power of Dimir Charm.
"Dangerous to recognize. Deadly not to."
While I have come to these conclusions over the course of a lot of games and tuning, I could have just saved myself a lot of time and checked out the control decks that did well at Grand Prix Vienna. One such deck in particular, Stanislav Cifka's U/W Control deck from the Top 8, ended up with a lot of the same ideas. While our decks differ significantly, not the least of all being the extra color of mana I'm playing, the basic idea is the same.
No Aetherling? Check. Elspeth to provide utility and a win condition all in one efficient package? Check. Killing lots of creatures with two power or less? You betcha! Cifka plays the full four copies of Last Breath. That's a lot of creatures with upper respiratory problems. Considering Dimir Charm is actually just a better Last Breath most of the time, I feel like I'm probably on the right track.
"On the right track to what?"
You'll have to excuse me. I may have gotten ahead of myself. While I've talked a lot about a number of the card choices I've made in my Esper list, I have left out the most important thing. Why should we even be playing Esper? What does this deck offer that I can't get from just playing Mono-Black or Mono-Blue?
The reason I started trying out Esper in the first place is because I wanted to find the best shell for Blood Baron of Vizkopa. If you had asked me last week what I thought about Esper, I would have probably told you it was a half-eaten sandwich found in a dumpster on July 14th, 2012 in Tucson, Arizona. Hot garbage. At this point in time, I feel confident enough to say that Esper has grown on me. Hot garbage? Not anymore. It's at least lukewarm garbage at this point.
I think Blood Baron is one of the best creatures in Standard right now. He has relevant protections from a lot of the commonly played removal spells, ranging from Hero's Downfall to Chained to the Rocks. That doesn't even take into consideration how it stacks up against other creatures. Being able to bash through Desecration Demon is an above average-sized game. The Baron has protection from the entirety of W/R Aggro. The lifelink means that it can actually be a relevant threat against those kinds of hyperaggressive strategies.
What makes Esper the best Blood Baron shell? There are two reasons I feel. The first is that Supreme Verdict plays very well into Blood Baron. A Verdict on turn 4 clears the way for Baron on turn 5. Oftentimes when you're behind on board, while Blood Baron can help catch you back up it's not good enough by itself to do so. Supreme Verdict can help ensure you aren't behind on board when you jam it in there.
Sure, there are sometimes awkward situations where you play a Blood Baron and then draw a Verdict afterward, but even those scenarios aren't all that bad. Blood Baron is the kind of card that pushes your opponent to overextend to have enough pressure to swing past it, which in turn lets you get more value out of your Supreme Verdict.
The second reason Esper is the best Blood Baron shell is that it has a superior endgame to nearly everything. Blood Baron does one thing, and he does it well. He buys you time. When you're playing Sphinx's Revelation in your deck, time is often all you really need. As I mentioned earlier, a single Blood Baron is rarely going to get the job done. What that lone muscular flesh-loving Vampire will do is stave off your opponent long enough for you to fire off a Revelation for four or five. Usually after that point winning becomes pretty academic.
At first I had four copies of Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver in my sideboard since I thought it would be a strong sideboard threat against Mono-Black Devotion. It turned out that I was just stone wrong. Ashiok was bad. Most of the time it just sat there a few turns before dying. Occasionally it would end up netting me something like a Pack Rat or Nightveil Specter. Whenever it did that, I would get super excited, especially if said Rat or Specter would go on to win the game for me.
It took me a while, but I finally put two and two together. If I was winning with Ashiok in the situations where I used it to get a Specter or Rat, maybe instead of Ashiok I should play just Specter or Rat. Brilliant! The Esper list that got second place at GP Vienna had three Pack Rats in the sideboard. Personally, I like Nightveil Specter a little more. For one, it's less all in, though the upside isn't as high. Secondly, I feel like Nightveil Specter is more versatile. I can side it in against Mono-Red Aggro and not feel embarrassed. I can side it in against other control decks and force them to blow a removal spell without having to also throw other cards away in the meantime.
The last and most important question is how does this deck fare against Mono-Black and Mono-Blue Devotion? I think at this point the answer is fairly well. I'm going to talk a bit about both matchups and what is important to keep in mind.
None of their cards are very good with a few key exceptions. Bident of Thassa, Jace, Architect of Thought, Thassa, God of the Sea, and Mutavault are really the only cards that "matter." The easiest way to control both Thassa and Bident of Thassa is to just kill everything. I usually prefer to just take hits early in the game if I have a Supreme Verdict in hand so I can have some removal spells to hit follow*up creatures when they try to recover from the Verdict.
I rarely blow Detention Sphere on a creature unless I absolutely have to. I'd rather save it for Thassa or Bident if I can help it. Sometimes you have to use it on Master of Waves if you don't have another answer for it.
One card that I like to side in against Mono-Blue that might not be immediately obvious is Pithing Needle. It may seem marginal, but Needle on Mutavault is extremely backbreaking for them. Their deck is not well set up to beat Supreme Verdict, and Mutavault is one of the few ways they can do it. Having a Needle on Mutavault makes your Jaces and Supreme Verdicts better, and it also makes their Bident of Thassa worse.
Pithing Needle is also a good answer to Thassa, God of the Sea. While Needle doesn't stop the scry ability or prevent Thassa from becoming an indestructible 5/5, it can ensure that their other creatures aren't able to get a free pass past The Baron or Elspeth Soldiers in combat. It's surprising how good Thassa's unblockable ability is against this deck, and shutting it off is often worth a card.
Overall, I've found this matchup to be pretty good.
I try not to mulligan a lot against Mono-Black. Setting yourself back a card is pretty bad when their plan in sideboarded games is to set you back all of your cards with a stream of Thoughtseizes and Duresses. My favorite hands to keep against them are like two lands and five spells since you can usually recover from stumbling on land but it's very hard to recover from being double Thoughtseized and getting stuck with only lands. Temples are actually just the best thing ever against them since Thoughtseize can't stop the top of your deck.
I've kept a few one-Temple hands on the draw against Mono-Black and "gotten there" as they say. Greedy, I'll admit—but Esper has 27 lands, and the scry lands help immensely to find more. I think with enough early interaction those are reasonable keeps.
When I Thoughtseize them, I almost always just take their scariest threat. I don't like taking cards like Devour Flesh or Hero's Downfall unless I absolutely have to rely on a Blood Baron to win. If you take away their offense, you have time to find cards like Elspeth to blank their Devour Flesh. Sometimes this means the most immediately relevant threat. Desecration Demon is the scariest card if you don't have a removal spell for it because Papa D doesn't give you much time to find one. However, if it's something like turn 2, the Demon is still a few turns off. You have to trust in your deck to cough up an answer by that point and just take a more pressing card instead. I pretty much always take Underworld Connections if they have one unless I have like a D-Sphere over Pithing Needle full house in my hand.
One of my favorite aspects of this match is something I like to call "The Pack Rat Game." It's the classic Rat and Mouse game to see who blinks first. The basic gist is that a lot of times when I have a card like Supreme Verdict or Detention Sphere in my hand I will opt to not use it on their Pack Rat in order to entice them to make more Rats. If I know their hand has scarier cards in it, I want them to start discarding those cards to fuel their Rat army. Then I can blow the Sphere, get rid of all the Rats, and be left with a more manageable amount of threats left in their hand.
Sometimes to fully sell them on going in on Rat, I like to blow an Ultimate Price on a Rat after they've already made one. Usually this gives off the signal that you lack a Detention Sphere or Supreme Verdict and will entice them to do something like turn that Nightveil Specter in their hand into a 2/2 Rat instead.
Another nice trick is that if your opponent pushes their Rats into 4/4 territory you can use Elspeth's -3 to wipe them out. It's often possible to bait them into doing this. One example is to attack with Blood Baron instead of holding it back on defense. This pushes the idea that the game is now a race. A Rat race. They may just go all in on Rat on their turn, and you can follow it up with a Blood Baron attack and an Elspeth -3 the next turn. While her -3 does take out Blood Baron as well, a single Baron is pretty ineffective against a horde of growing Rats. Sacrifices must be made for the greater good. Blood Baron knows a thing or two about sacrifices.
One quick note is that playing games with Pack Rat does come with its own set of risks. If you're sitting on just one answer for Pack Rat and let it live too long and they draw something like a Thoughtseize to rip that threat . . . well, ya deaaad. The key is to wait just long enough but not a turn too long.
Jace hasn't really been that impressive for me in this matchup. I usually side a few copies out, and I generally tick Jace down in nearly all circumstances since the worst thing that can happen is to play a Jace, +1 it, and have it die to a Hero's Downfall without getting any cards out of the deal. Oftentimes if you play a Jace and -2 it, they have to follow that up by killing it with Mutavault the next turn. Not only do you get to dig a little deeper through your deck, but you get to half Time Walk them as well.
All in all, this matchup can be very close. If you get hit with triple Thoughtseize into Underworld Connections on turn 3, you aren't going to win (that series actually happened to me last night). If their draw is more realistic, the game usually drags on a while, and typically speaking your better late-game card quality wins out in the end. Overall, I think the matchup is favorable, but sometimes Mono-Black will just get you and there isn't anything you can do about it.
This weekend there are a number of big Standard events. There is a GP in Dallas, a SCG Open in Oakland, and a SCG Classic in Columbus. This is the first weekend of the new Standard season PTQs as well. There are going to be a lot of chances to play Standard, which means there are going to be a lot of people playing Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Blue Devotion.
If you're looking for something to give you a chance against those decks, you can do much worse than Esper Control.
While The Baron might not be much of a Smashing Pumpkins fan, he still knows a thing or two about putting a Rat in a cage. Let's give him that chance.
*They call him Edward Cullen.