Ever since the inception of U/B Faeries after the printing of Bitterblossom, Thoughtseize has been a highly-played card across multiple formats. It is a cheap, disruptive way to interact with your opponent that utilizes a rarely-used resource, your life total. Sure, it can be damaging against a burn deck, but even there you are still going to take away a point or two of damage, which could end up resulting in you winning the game. And after it got a reprint in Theros, it has made black control decks into one of the most-feared strategies in Standard.
But something seems a bit different now...
Standard, in all its Mythic Rare glory, is not the same as it used to be. Decks rely on standalone threats much more than they do on synergy. Few decks have just one card that is the linchpin to their overarching strategy, and even fewer combine multiple elements among their spells to create an overwhelming advantage through synergy. It seems like most people are just jamming threats down your throat until you can't deal with one, or only one is left standing.
When that is the case, is Thoughtseize really all that good?
The main argument against Thoughtseize is that people are adapting to it, which is generally tough to do. However, if you take a look at Tom Ross's deck that won the Season Two Invitational in Columbus, you'll get a picture of what I'm talking about.
- 4 Akroan Crusader
- 4 Ash Zealot
- 4 Firedrinker Satyr
- 4 Foundry Street Denizen
- 4 Legion Loyalist
- 4 Rakdos Cackler
- 2 Rubblebelt Maaka
- 17 Mountain
Thoughtseize decks don't just prey on synergy, but they also have a significant advantage when the opponent is getting flooded on lands. Tom's deck exploits the latter of these two effects by only playing seventeen lands and focusing the majority of his curve around one-mana spells. It is incredibly difficult to flood out in this deck because even when you draw four lands, you have multiple ways to utilize that extra mana turn after turn through Dragon Mantle or Firedrinker Satyr.
Thoughtseize decks are also pretty mediocre when every card in your opponent's deck is effectively the same. A small creature, a cheap burn spell, these are the two types of cards in Tom's deck - and neither is really a great target for Thoughtseize. Yes, you're able to interact with them if you're using a Thoughtseize, but you're spending time and resources on an effect that is inherently mediocre.
Thoughtseize, and discard effects in general, are actually the polar opposite of tempo. You're spending a card and mana to take an opponent's card away from them, but they are still free to use their mana on other things. The advantage you can gain by casting Thoughtseize and the like is that you put your opponent off curve by taking away whatever spell they were about to cast. However, when someone's deck is built to have a flatter curve, like Tom's deck, that potential to disrupt their curve is invalidated because almost all of the spells cost the same.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think Thoughtseize is an inherently bad card. In fact, I would argue that Thoughtseize is one of the best cards of all time. What I am saying is that Thoughtseize is not the end-all be-all of the format, and you can build your deck to exploit people who are relying on it too much.
I once had an "argument" on camera with Osyp Lebedowicz where I said that Thoughtseize was one of the most skill intensive cards to play in Standard. His reaction was priceless, and he spent the next few minutes needling me for my remark. "Thoughtseize just takes their best card, end of story." But that isn't the end of the story. Not by a long shot.
I would say that most people who are trying to cast Thoughtseize in Standard are the same people who wanted to be playing the control role in previous formats. By taking away powerful options from the opponent for just a single mana you are controlling the flow of the game, and ultimately Thoughtseize leaves you able to sculpt your plans for the next few turns while your opponent lacks that same vital information.
In any given situation, depending on your hand and the contents of your deck, Thoughtseize requires a lot of knowledge to be played correctly. Just because your opponent has a removal spell doesn't mean you take it to protect your Pack Rat. Just because they have Blood Baron of Vizkopa doesn't mean you take it because your deck has so few answers to it.
Yes, these are good examples of "easy" picks for Thoughtseize, but that doesn't mean they are always the correct pick. Many games in the mirror will revolve around Pack Rat, but the second tier of games revolves almost solely around Underworld Connections. If one person has access to an extra card every turn, they can occasionally overpower a Pack Rat. And even less obviously, your pick with Thoughtseize actually gives away a significant amount of information about your hand to your opponent.
Against a slew of other strategies, your main goal with Thoughtseize should be taking the card that is more appropriate for that particular game or situation over the coming turns, not necessarily what card is inherently “the best." The best card is always contextual, and that decision should not be made lightly. For example, if you have an early Pack Rat against an a Sphinx's Revelation deck, taking away their Supreme Verdict could be infinitely more valuable than taking their Sphinx's Revelation even though Revelations is heralded as a "better card." By taking their Supreme Verdict, you could potentially force them to use their Sphinx's Revelation prematurely, which takes away a lot of value that was previously placed on it.
Having redundancy in your deck is invaluable against Thoughtseize decks. Without having to rely on a particular card or synergy within your deck to do the heavy lifting, such as a Bitterblossom, you are better-positioned against one of the best cards in the format. This is one of the reasons why most aggressive decks are considered to be "well-positioned" against black control decks. When you can turn one of their best cards into one of their worst, this gives you a significant edge in that matchup.
This is also one of the reasons why we have a "Mythic Rare Jamfest" format. Every card you play needs to have a significant impact on the game - with Thoughtseize around, you won't have access to nearly as many impactful spells as usual. You need the top of your deck to help you out, and that means stuffing your deck with significant threats. Thoughtseize also makes Temples much more appealing in the current Standard. It is so easy to flood out in a game against Thoughtseize because it forces you to just completely miss a spell that would normally fit on your curve. The Temples alleviate this pressure by putting excess mana sources on the bottom of your deck while digging for relevant spells. The trick is knowing exactly when to play your Temples while simultaneously knowing exactly what it is you're trying to dig for.
Riddle of the Sphinx
After getting continually crushed with black control decks over the last few weeks, I finally decided to put down the Pack Rats for Saturday's Standard Open in Columbus. I opted for a Thoughtseize deck, but one that used it in a much different way.
Long story short, this deck isn't hinging on Thoughtseize to protect itself. Out of the black decks, Thoughtseize is the one card that can catch anything, but that is very important mostly because there are a lot of glaring holes in their overall gameplan. The lack of sweepers in black control decks allows aggressive strategies to go under them, swarming the board with dorks and invalidating Pack Rat or Desecration Demon. While that may change with Tom Ross's Invitational win, prompting a surge in copies of Drown in Sorrow, I expect them to still be underdogs if the opponent knows what they're doing.
But this deck just uses Thoughtseize as a cheap means of interaction while it hits its land drops and prepares to unleash more powerful control elements. The amount of time a single Thoughtseize can buy you is ridiculous, though it can be much more taxing here. Unlike black control decks, Esper Control can't necessarily put up a good defense in the early turns of the game, meaning your life total matters much more. However, the effect to push people off of their natural curve or take away something that is marginally hard to deal with is a powerful effect for a control deck.
The upside to playing Esper Control over a black-based control deck is that you gain access to a number of ways to gain significant card advantage without dealing yourself more damage via Underworld Connections. Jace, Architect of Thought and Sphinx's Revelation are ridiculous cards that reward you for interacting with your opponent early on in the game. If you're able to trade one-for-one on cards in the early turns of the game against a creature-based deck only to follow it up with a big Sphinx's Revelation, you've virtually reset the game with your opponent sitting on fewer cards than you.
The life and card advantage from Sphinx's Revelation is just absurd, and it encourages you to have cheap spells that interact favorably with your opponent. This is why having cheap removal spells is so important. You don't want to draw a bunch of clunky threats from Sphinx's Revelation because there is a good chance you won't be able to cast all of those spells before the game ends, making the actual card advantage from Sphinx's Revelation matters much less.
This version of Esper Control is a bit more threat-dense, and foregoes Elixir of Immortality because I actually want to finish my matches. Elixir of Immortality is a great way to end most of your matches in a draw, while both Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Aetherling can kill your opponent in just a few turns. The fact that so many people play Thoughtseize and Hero's Downfall means you don't mind drawing multiples of these kinds of cards so long as one of them eventually sticks. But the last thing I want to do after sideboarding is to have more of these types of cards, hence the lack of Blood Baron of Vizkopa or Archangel of Thune.
When I build sideboards for Sphinx's Revelation decks, I tend to lean on the side of cheap, pinpoint disruption that will allow me to overwhelm my opponent whenever I get to resolve a Sphinx's Revelation. This is why Dark Betrayal, Gainsay, Negate, and cards like that are awesome cards to have access to. While they are narrow, your goal in sideboarding with this deck is to create a sixty-card deck that your opponent has a lot of trouble actually beating. When you have Supreme Verdict for their early rush and cheap spot removal to follow it up, the game can be yours via any win condition you choose. One of the easiest ways to lose is drawing too many expensive spells without a way to actually start casting them.
At the top of my priorities in Esper Control is hitting land drops. When I'm using my Temples early on, I want to make sure I am able to hit every land drop for the first five to seven turns. If your hand is heavy on mana, keeping any way to interact with your opponent is fine - the trick is knowing what kinds of cards you need at specific points in the game. If you just need a windfall of card advantage, you can bottom anything that isn't Sphinx's Revelation. If you need to close the game as quickly as possible, Elspeth or Aetherling is what you're digging for.
One card I hate in these strategies is Divination. Yes, you gain card advantage when you cast Divination, but I don't think that is something this deck actually needs in small increments. Sphinx's Revelation completely changes how these kinds of decks are supposed to operate. All I ever want to be doing on the first five or so turns of the game is disrupting my opponent's gameplan. Whether that means Dissolve or just a removal spell depends entirely on what they're trying to do. My job is just to slow them down until I can resolve a big Sphinx's Revelation or stick a win condition. Cards like Divination don't really fit the bill here.
That said, I do understand that most traditional control decks want card advantage because that is their main way of staying ahead of the opponent. When you don't have access to something like Sphinx's Revelation, as in Theros Block Constructed, Divination is much more powerful. Card advantage is exactly what you want when you are trying to one-for-one your opponent to death, but Divination just isn't necessary when you have Jace and Sphinx's Revelation.
While I won't fault anyone for casting Divination, I just want to ask them one question: are you casting it to hit your land drops? If that's the case, maybe you should consider playing one or even two more lands in your deck! If you're just losing to creature decks in the early turns, perhaps you should think about staying away from Divination in favor of more removal spells. Temples give this deck an entirely new way to approach deckbuilding. Normally I would want Think Twice or Divination-type effects to help dig for specific spells. The Temples alleviate this pressure by allowing you to hit most of the things you want while just playing out your lands. Having the ability to scry for free is just absurd on so many levels.
I will say that one major flaw in this particular Esper Control list is that you are too reliant on Detention Sphere to deal with enchantments. My two losses in the Standard Open came to B/G Devotion simply because my Detention Spheres did not stop their Underworld Connections for very long. Their having access to Abrupt Decay was backbreaking because it meant I was never actually safe, and their traditionally "dead" removal gave them a sort of inevitability. If I had access to Deicide or something similar in a large number, that wouldn't have been a problem at all.
After having given up Sphinx's Revelation for a few months, I'm back on board. I heard a lot of people complaining about losing to Jund Monsters with the deck, but I just didn't have the same experience. Perhaps Pithing Needle was the answer everyone else was looking for, or maybe I'm just much luckier than them.
After ten rounds of slugging through so many different archetypes, I have found a few slots that can be changed, but I love this particular take on the strategy. After sideboarding, your deck becomes much more streamlined against every single deck in the format and all of your Sphinx's Revelations draw into cheap answers that they have a tough time beating. After board, you want every Sphinx's Revelation to be backbreaking, so untapping and casting two or three spells each turn for the next few turns will usually close the game out.
After watching three different red-based decks win the three major Standard events this past weekend, I can safely say that I want some more ways to interact with them. The problem is that all three require much different approaches. Nyx-Fleece Ram and Fiendslayer Paladin help against all three, but Burn means you want Dispels while the other two variants require different kinds of removal. In all honesty, I wish I could splash Drown in Sorrow without crippling my manabase.
While the "hard" three-color Esper Control decks have access to a wider range of answers, that comes at a real cost which I am not willing to pay when people are getting aggressive. And I mean really aggressive. One extra shock from a Godless Shrine or Watery Grave could mean the difference between winning and losing a match against a red deck.
I will be working on this deck for the rest of the week leading up to Grand Prix Chicago, which I will hopefully be attending. I think that Esper Control has a solid place in the current metagame, as both black and blue devotion decks are on the rise. If I can just build the sideboard to compete against aggressive red strategies, I think the deck will be a monster. If you love playing control decks, give the deck a try. You won't be disappointed.