Having a record of 9-2 at the Season Three Invitational was a great feeling in the early rounds of day 2. The last time I had a run like that was at the end of last year, which yielded me a top 8 berth shortly after. My Esper control decks in each format were firing on all cylinders, defeating big name opponents round after round including the eventual back-to-back champion Tom Ross. The day was going great, and I felt victory was a strong possibility because of the way each deck was executing.
That feeling changed abruptly.
Magic can be a cruel game. Even when you're destroying round after round, all of that can easily come to an end. Enter my buddy Chi Hoi Yim. Game 3, I was sitting comfortably with victory on the horizon against Yim, but consecutive blind flips with a Counterbalance on camera pushed the victory into his camp. The worst feeling about the first blind flip was that he only had five remaining two-drops in his library. That loss stung pretty bad and resulted in a combination of bad luck and bad play moving forward, and I was only able to scrape together one more win in the last four rounds. The bad luck came in the form of a painful peel from a very nice G/W Aggro player game 3 and a bone-headed misregistration of my Standard deck that gave Kenny Castor a free win. Kenny happened to be on Mono-Blue Devotion - which, if you've followed the progression of Esper, you know that the matchup is pretty tough to lose.
I write about shrugging off losses and not letting them stay in the back of your mind, but I've found that these are much tougher to fully implement. After snagging a win late in the tournament, I found myself paired against Erik Smith for a top 32 win-and-in. Erik dispatched me fairly easy with a few play mistakes on my side and the Invitational was over. There are many tournaments that I have participated in and many more I will travel to, so the overall impact of this tournament is pretty minimal in the grand scheme of things. However, there is good news to be told from this weekend:
Esper Stoneblade in Legacy is a fantastic choice for any wizard to wield.
The power of the old Lingering Souls over the new True Name-Nemesis is evident after another nineteen rounds of total Legacy over two tournaments. I had the honor of landing in the top 8 of the Legacy Open Sunday after the Invitational with clashes against some of the biggest names on the Open Series: Chris VanMeter, Ben Friedman, Shahar Shenhar, Dan Musser, and Brian Braun-Duin just to mention a few! This spread of pros in conjunction with Open Series regulars made a great test for Esper. Throughout the Invitational and the sequential Open I battled in, I could see the advantage of Lingering Souls over TNN. Had I decided to play True Name-Nemesis over the Souls, I would have lost multiple games in the same situations. This doesn't mean that the Souls are strictly better than the hard-to-defeat fish, but there are multiple advantages that I want to discuss today.
I don't really do the whole tournament report thing, but I wanted to give a final few words about this year for Esper in Standard. I wish I was able to rally the troops after that hard loss to Yim on camera to give more validation to the deck I grew to love playing, but I fell short at no one's fault but my own.
Simply put, Esper Stoneblade is the real deal:
I entered the top 8 of the Legacy Open with a win-and-in against my good friend Brian Braun-Duin on camera. BBD is a skilled magician, more skilled than me in many facets, but he has a pretty difficult time defeating me when we are locked in combat. Between this recent Legacy match, the first round of the Vegas Invitational top 8, and our Legacy top 8 match in Baltimore, I've been able to sweep all three matches, and BBD has come to realize that the Magic deities have blessed me in our battles. Our match last weekend was stifled by a horrendous draw game 2 where BBD wasn't able to draw land and game 1 where he drew the wrong half of his deck against my Vendilion Clique / Karakas combo. I proceeded to lose to Dan Musser at around 10:30 EST in the top 8 and soon realized that after I had finished playing in three consecutive multiple-round tournaments, that I may not be as durable as I once was. I made a few mistakes off camera in the second game, but was saved by a miracle mistake by my buddy Dan.
I flashed in a Notion Thief on a pretty difficult board for me, facing down four 4/4 angels against my Souls/Jitte/Notion Thief. We went a couple turns where I used Umezawa's Jitte to take down two angels, but my time was running out. Dan drew his card for turn, tapped one, and cast Brainstorm, and I proceeded to draw three cards and have him put a couple back. That propelled me to game 3, where he was forced to have a blind flip on Counterbalance for one to stop my Brainstorm, which he did. That didn't end the chance of victory, but his Swords to Plowshares gave him the only answer to Notion Thief which was the only chance I had to scrape out a victory. I extended my hand, scarfed down dinner, and passed out in the car ride back to Norfolk. There are a ton of exciting stories about the Perish heard around the world against CVM, nearly outracing a True Name-Nemesis with one soul, and a Blue Elemental Blast that was pivotal in a victory over a U/R Delver player, but let's get right to the big question:
Is True Name-Nemesis better than Lingering Souls in Esper Stoneblade?
I believe the answer is no.
True-NameNemesis is impossible to resolve in Esper Stoneblade. There are just too many counterspells played by the fair decks in Legacy. RUG Delver taunts you with Daze and Force of Will, which prevent the merfolk from sneaking into play game after game. If True-Name Nemesis resolves then it's great, but RUG's specialty is denial of resources and spells. Lingering Souls getting countered feels like the greatest day of your life. After I cast a Lingering Souls, I'd like to go into my opponents hand, take a Daze from it, and place it on the battlefield for them. The purpose of Lingering Souls in these matchups is to get countered and then reused in the future for a discounted rate. Card advantage on Lingering Souls is obvious and is one of the huge reasons why it's so powerful in legacy.
Lingering Souls is more resilient than True-Name Nemesis against hate. Zealous Persecution and Golgari Charm are both great answers to the Souls and merfolk threats of legacy, but a skilled Lingering Souls player knows how to squeeze out all of the value of each copy without being blown out by hate. Sometimes two or three souls are enough to keep a constant pressure on the opponent and/or planeswalkers, so you can put your mind at rest and save the other half for a rainy day. I tried True-Name Nemesis for one tournament and played against three decks with Liliana of the Veil. After that nightmare experience I realized that if I was using my loyal spirits to defend myself, then I wouldn't have fallen to such a simple response from my Legacy opponents. Liliana of the Veil and Diabolic Edict are cards that Esper Stoneblade can fight through easily with a little spirit help. I have had countless opponents board out the black planeswalker and show me after the match, which makes me pretty happy. Commentators were discussing the negatives of Liliana of the Veil against my deck on camera due to the amount of card disadvantage created and the lack of board presence she provides overall.
Lingering Souls allows me to play sweet cards. Intuition, for example, is the real deal in this deck. There isn't a more demoralizing play against a fair deck than searching for three copies of Lingering Souls or two copies of Lingering Souls and a Cabal Therapy with an Intuition. Intuition and Cabal Therapy are fine cards on their own, but with soul synergy they can do unfair things very quickly. Against the other Stoneforge Mystic decks I found myself boarding out most of my Swords to Plowshares for Cabal Therapy instead. Do you know what's better than killing a Stoneforge Mystic? Casting Cabal Therapy after they cast a Stoneforge Mystic. If I were to run True-Name Nemesis over Lingering Souls, I wouldn't be able to perform the spicy plays that I have become accustomed to. The biggest loss in that category would be Engineered Plague in the sideboard. When I resolved an Engineered Plague against Shahar, he showed me his hand after the game that was full of humans from his Death and Taxes strategy. I played against and beat Elves three times over the weekend by using sleeper cards like Engineered Plague and Perish regularly. The best use of Engineered Plague is against True-Name Nemesis though. Killing it and then having a permanent answer for each additional one drawn is a pretty phenomenal play. I like the permanent and continuous answer that can hurt other decks in your path much more than narrow ones that are just a one-time use.
When resolved, True-Name Nemesis is better against the fair decks than Lingering Souls. So what?! We all know this, but is there a difference between winning easily and winning with a ton of work put behind it? That is the issue here. There are matches where my Lingering Souls were killed by Swords to Plowshares, Abrupt Decay, and random other nonsense, but I was still able to win those games eventually. Winning is the key here, and just because it takes more effort to kill with Souls doesn't mean the card is worse. The examples provided give my reasoning behind why it's okay to fight for your wins instead of looking for the easy route of True-Name Nemesis to come in for the steal. You'll be able to crush fair opponents with the power of protection, but you'll lose ground against all of the other strategies that I mentioned.
Everyone is prepared for True-Name Nemesis, but are they ready for some Souls?
I could write about Lingering Souls in Legacy all day, but there are a few other things I'd like to mention after the long weekend of battling. Perish was amazing and needs to be upped by two. Not only does it guarantee more wins against Elves, but it's boarded in against BUG/RUG Delver, Shardless BUG, Jund, and anything that has the Deathrite Shaman/Tarmogoyf combination. It is literally a one-sided wrath that leaves you with a Stoneforge Mystic, Batterskull, some souls, or anything else, while destroying your opponent's world. Perish being one less mana than Supreme Verdict is also amazing and the only reason I beat CVM game 2, as it killed what appeared to be a thousand elves on my third turn. The Blue Elemental Blast, Disenchant, and other bullet one-ofs are also very good and are pretty easy to board in against the decks that threaten you with streamlined threats.
The most controversial card in the deck is Notion Thief. Game 2 against Reid Duke during the Invitational was looking grim, but a Notion Thief in response to a Brainstorm sent us immediately to game 3, where I narrowly lost because of failing to draw a fourth land for Jace, the Mind Sculptor. I can go from tournament to tournament and tell tales of the power of Notion Thief, but ask anyone I've played against who has tried to draw extra cards, and they'll tell you the threat is real. Elves aren't even safe when there is a Glimpse of Nature or Elvish Visionary in their rotation, but I wouldn't suggest bringing more than one in there. It probably isn't the best sideboard card for Elves, but my defense is that you can always pitch it to Force of Will, and it may be a little better than Jace, the Mind Sculptor in some situations.
The last sideboard card is Rest in Peace, which was a new addition to the old list. I love Surgical Extraction, but Rest in Peace is easily the best graveyard hate card in all of Legacy and is the only reason I was able to beat Punishing Jund on Sunday. It also isn't too shabby against Dredge, Storm, or anything else that relies on their graveyard. The only awkward situation is the interaction between Lingering Souls, Intuition, and Snapcaster Mage, but the reward is worth the price in most situations.
Esper Stoneblade may be outdated in the minds of most players, but there is a ton of gas left in the tank. There is merit in the exclusion of Deathrite Shaman, and using some basics and additional cantrips. You won't be seeing me changing decks anytime soon, that's for sure!
Standard is Gone
The Azorius Guild treated me right for the better part of a year. I was able to snag an Invitational Top 8 last year on the back of Sphinx's Revelation and have done a decent amount of winning this year, but it wasn't the amount that I expected from the U/W camp. The cards that are rotating will all but kill the strategy that was in place for control and with the death of four mana wrath effects, control is in for a rocky future. I always believe control is viable, and I don't think that WOTC will follow through with their maniacal mission to destroy the archetype completely.
We all know how broken Supreme Verdict is, right? Give me a break.
There have been tournaments where lifetime control mages wouldn't touch a sweeper and that is based on the overall weakness of spells and strength of creatures/planeswalkers in recent times. Not only are they dogging on the ability to clean the battlefield up for control players, but they are not excited about two-mana removal spells.
I guess Doom Blade was too broken for years, and it's about time they nerfed cards that are similar.
Sarcasm is something I don't use in articles often, but I became pretty heated after reading that there is a focus on moving the game away from reactive strategies completely. I'm not naive though, and I know that the majority of people that play Magic hate control cards. Counterspells, sweepers, removal, and card draw are not fun to play against and I get it, but control is a necessary element of the game to keep the metagame healthy for all. Aggro players, just like us control players, want their counterparts to be around in order to take advantage of the slow, mana greedy strategies that are implemented. Even though it's been rough, I still believe that control will be alive and kicking, but it is up to us to create the best possible seventy-five to battle with. With that being said, let's talk about just a couple cards I am excited about. After more spoilers are released, then I'll be able to paint a much better picture of what control will look like after rotation.
This card is fantastic. Is it better than the old Sorin, Lord of Innistrad? Nope, but he is good enough. When he hits the battlefield he protects himself immediately. Sadly it's a minus ability, but the plus isn't too shabby as well. Turning a few proactive, control dudes into lifelinkers for a turn can swing the game heavily in your favor against any aggressive strategy. The emblem is achieved in just three turns, which gives you a ridiculous edge over any creature deck that you may encounter. The creatures have flying, which is huge for control decks because of the win condition opportunities they provide. Flyers have always made control better and this goes back to the Emeria Angel/Baneslayer Angel of old for me. I would mention Consecrated Sphinx, but every time I think of the best creature that I've ever cast I get a bit emotional.
This is a card to keep an eye on. Hero's Downfall is a very similar spell, but being able to exile anything and have an answer all is fantastic. With the exit of Detention Sphere, if I were to play an Esper strategy in the future, I would 100% include this card in the main and sideboard. Spells that answer all threats are the most useful cards to a control player that uses less countermagic and a more proactive strategy like me. I'm not sure how many you'd run because of Hero's Downfall, but it is definitely going to be a split.
This charm has received the most buzz from spoiler season and for good reason. It does everything, and a card like this makes me want to play BUG badly. After rotation I don't know what I'm going to play, but I know that cards like Sylvan Caryatid, Polukranos, World Eater, Courser of Kruphix and other green fellas will be good, so we'll see. I'm open to other colors to enter my control world, but with the reprinting of fetchlands that help Esper, it has to be a darn good reason.
In the next couple weeks I will compile more spoilers and prepare for the end of old Standard and begin to produce decklists that I might play. These decklists will be rough around the edges, but with the exiting of the Azorius Guild, control will look a lot different this time around. Thanks for reading guys and I'll see you soon!