I really tried to play a different deck.
You all have been with me throughout this journey, and I felt like Sultai Walkers was a big step in the right direction. Good Magic Online results and doing well locally led me to sleeving up Forests after a long hiatus. The Sultai Walkers deck is still very strong, and I highly recommend it to anyone that prefers a less reactive style of deck. It demolishes aggro, puts a hurting on midrange, and has the ability to gain life throughout the match at an efficient rate against red decks that have burn to close games out. The shortfall of the deck is its inability to fight reactive decks, entering the arena with an array of one-for-ones, which doesn't cut it against true control. Sultai Walkers also cannot defeat devotion-based decks, and cards like Hornet Queen cause too much of a headache to answer.
The lack of a true control deck, or a deck that has mass removal, leads to a metagame without balance. Every top 8 from the set release up to the Open Series in Richmond has lacked that control presence that brings balance to a metagame. Esper Control feeds on midrange decks and outright embarrasses them by sweeping the board, drawing a ton of cards, and using planeswalkers in the most effective way. You'll see an increase in hand disruption, early drops, and aggressive strategies as control gains popularity, but luckily for us it hasn't.
After getting second in Richmond, I arrived home and battled in an 8-player Standard tournament. My first round was against the 75 card mirror, which excited me to no end. I'm not the kind of guy to do well in a tournament and hope to continue that success through secrecy. I want my decks to get out there, achieve some notoriety, and do some damage from the local game store all the way to the Pro Tour. With that being said, I'm not a huge tournament report guy as many of you already know. I enjoy giving a brief walkthrough of my tournament experience, changes I'd make, and how to prepare for certain matchups.
"Oh Come On…"
That was my answer to the top 8 profile question when asked why I chose what I chose to play. Truthfully, I was actually 100% off of Esper Control for a few different reasons:
1.) The mana looks wretched. I was playing this list on Magic Online with some success, but falling to Abzan Aggro, Mono-Red, Aggro, and basically any aggressive deck I played against. I played a few games where I imagined my perfect seven in the opening hand, but still would have fallen to an average Mono-Red Aggro draw. The mana is a huge reason why I dug myself into this situation. There are twelve Temples that are very slow against decks with one and two-drops in them. Any attempt to build the manabase differently by using less of these lands will fail. The Temples are what make Esper Control so good in comparison to other control and midrange decks. Due to the focus on the new clans, people have abandoned mana combinations that utilize three of the five Tifferent temples. This has left the window wide open for decks like Esper Control to sculpt draws turn after turn for free. The slow effect of the lands isn't the only negative, however.
The color split to cast the necessary spells is suspect at best. Running the twelve Temples gives you eight for each, then four copies of Polluted Delta, two copies of Flooded Strand, Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth, Caves of Koilos, and two of each basic land. That gives the following split of mana:
Black = 16
Blue = 16
White = 11
This mana breakdown gives us the best shot to hit double blue and/or and double black early. There have been times where I've had to scry hard to get that second white source, but the vast majority of the time I hit it. The double white is only for lategame spells, but having it on turn 5 is crucial when attempting to clear the board with End Hostilities. The fact two of each color is necessary at some point in the game makes not having a tri-land like Arcane Sanctum very painful. The original build I had of Esper Control had additional duals that enter-the-battlefield tapped, but the price of being even slower was too heavy to pay. The additional Flooded Strands and Polluted Deltas give some relief in the color fixing department, as well as fill the graveyard for the powerhouse draw engine of the deck. The mana looks scary on paper and will scare you while scrying for help, but it works out most of the time in action.
2.) U/B Control is a really good deck. I really like U/B Control and my buddy Ali Aintrazi should have top 8'd in Richmond along with me. The deck has everything you need to be successful, even with a slow sweeper like Perilous Vault. The real missing piece is an all-in-one card like Elspeth, Sun's Champion that simply cannot be replicated. I worked on a sweet U/B Control deck a little while ago, and it utilized the power of Treasure Cruise alongside of Dig Through Time, which is the reason why I sleeved up eight fetchlands instead of the four on-color ones alone. Missing the guaranteed sweeper (End Hostilities) and the powerful planeswalker (Elspeth, Sun's Champion) wasn't enough for me to ditch the consistent control deck that I grew to love. For those that have been following me for some time, I had a lot of success with U/B Control in the days of Black Sun's Zenith, so I'd never be opposed to dropping white if it was for the best. Even after doing well in this tournament, I don't believe that Esper Control is strictly better. It abuses midrange decks in the same fashion, but has a much more reliable sweeper and haymaker, which can entice anyone to switch camps. I was winning with U/B Control online a bit more than with Esper Control, so this was another reason why I dropped my favorite shard temporarily.
3.) I hate losing to aggro. Nothing in this world infuriates me more than being killed by knucklehead one-drops, which creates a major influence on my card choices while deckbuilding. I had a heavy anti-aggro sideboard for the Richmond Open. I was packing Nyx Fleece Rams, Drown in Sorrrows, lots of spot removal, and simply better creatures. I didn't have the chance to play against Mono-Red Aggro, and it made me realize that playing all of this aggro hate isn't always the wisest decision. Even with bringing in 11-12 cards, I found myself losing to Mono-Red about half the time I played against it online. Sultai Walkers didn't have this problem, because Sylvan Caryatid and Courser of Kruphix are great game 1 cards against them, and cards like Drown in Sorrow make the matchup pretty easy after sideboard. Being able to consistently smash aggro decks is a good enough reason for me to sleeve up the deck and charge moving forward, especially if it's still in the control wheelhouse.
"Why Did You Play Esper Control Then?"
Esper Control still has powerful removal, decent countermagic, game changing card draw, and the best finishers in current Standard. Sorin, Solemn Visitor is good against everything it turns out, and that's one of the reasons why his count went up to three. I knew it would be great from the start, and the life swing that he inevitably will give you while trying to stabilize is fantastic. I count the Thoughtseize + Despise package as removal, because the sole purpose of running so many copies is to remove threats from turns 1 through 3. After threats are gone from the early turns, Esper Control easily can control the board with one-for-ones and finish up with haymaking finishers and card draw. You have seen a list of logical, reasonable reasons to play a deck, but let me share this video with you to give insight on why I ran with the black, white, and blue last weekend.
After a buddy posted this link on my Facebook, I had to give Esper another shot. Esper Control has become a part of my Magic personality, and even when I started with Sultai Walkers, I had readers and fans demand an Esper Control list for the loyalists. I figured that if I'm known for something more specific than a knowledgeable control player, then I should at least give it a shot on the big stage. I love control, and Esper is sweet, but if I got massacred in Richmond I would have dropped the deck like a bad habit. I owed Esper Control one shot and it came through big time, so that will be the deck I work on the most going forward. Sultai Walkers and U/B Control are great still, and if you have any questions about your particular builds of those two decks, please do let me know!
I'm going to write up and take a picture of sideboarding strategies soon, but the sideboard wasn't the greatest in Richmond. The list I posted has an "improved" fifteen, but I want to tweak it a little more before giving a full breakdown. Here is a generic sideboarding strategy guide for a few of the matchups that I have faced in person or online.
VS Jeskai Aggro and Jeskai Token Combo
These two Jeskai decks are dealt with using a similar strategy. My opponent in the finals had the impression that the matchup was good, but then saw the sideboard hate I was packing and realized that it was an uphill battle for him. Game 1, I defeated him. Game 2, I was destroyed. But in game 3, I felt that I would have won nine times out of ten with my opening hand. A brief recap was that I scryed four times and failed to hit a fourth land to have easily won. This put me in the position where I felt I had to Dissolve a one-drop, and he resolved Jeskai Ascendancy. Drawing lands is an issue with some decks when keeping a three-land hand, but after that many scrys I had a sick feeling to my stomach as I extended the hand.
This matchup is a good one for us even after that loss. Bring in Drown in Sorrow, Bile Blight, and every Negate you have. I personally cut the hand disruption, because the loss of life is crucial in this matchup. The black removal that is brought in acts as additional sweepers, and Negate counters every spell that you care about.
Prognostic Sphinx is a card that I haven't brought up much. It's one of those sideboard cards you have to have a feel for bringing in. I tend to bring in one or two against everything that doesn't call for an immediate End Hostilities on turn 5. In these aggro matchups, I bring them in to replace dead cards like Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver, but you may have noticed it was moved to the sideboard. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver won me a few matches that no other card could, but it was bad more than good, so I have temporarily put it in the sideboard
VS Abzan/Temur Midrange
These matchups all play out very similarly. Decks that use Sylvan Caryatid have the same gameplan, which is to drop big creatures out at an accelerated rate and then sit back with powerful spells. Temur has a scary endgame in Crater's Claws, which is any control player's nightmare. When people are sleeving up four Fireballs, we lose. Temur is easily the hardest of the midrange matchups, but beatable if played right. You have to leave in all of the hand disruption against these decks and bring in Disdainful Stroke and a Negate or two. The reason why there isn't a whole lot of sideboard for the midrange decks is because the maindeck has all of the answers inside. There aren't any dead cards except Bile Blight, so that is the obvious card to remove.
When playing against Abzan Midrange, watch out for their powerful removal and battle it with Negate. I defeat that deck the vast majority of the time, so as long as you keep your hand disruption in, defend your win conditions with Negate, and take the appropriate cards away from your opponent that can threaten you in the early game, you should do okay.
VS Abzan Aggro, Mardu Midrange/Aggro
These are some of the better matchups for Esper Control. Drown in Sorrow and Bile Blight are just amazing against these decks. Having eight sweepers in one deck is a luxury that only Esper Control can enjoy effectively, especially with one only costing three mana. I take out all of the hand disruption against these matchups because of the inclusion of Bile Blight and early answers. You don't need the one-mana disruption because they are terrible draws later, potentially deal damage to you, and the aggressive cards are very redundant. The only difference in strategy between these decks is Negate. I bring in all of the Negates against Mardu Midrange, because they are great against token production, burn, and removal against your win conditions. Prognostic Sphinx comes in as a one or two of against the Mardu decks because of Crackling Doom. If they didn't have that card, then all three would come in due to the power of an unkillable win condition. I tend to get a feel for my opponent, and if I have the funny feeling that he or she is cutting some of their copies of Crackling Doom, then the sphinx army gets included. I played against Mardu three times at the Open, and I only dropped one game total to it. Board well, don't take unnecessary damage, and protect a planeswalker for an easy win.
I didn't play against Mono-Red Aggro or the control mirror once in Richmond, but those matchups are pretty easy to board and play against. The control mirror has you remove nearly all of the removal and bring in cards that are high impact. Mono-Red has you cut expensive cards like Treasure Cruise and the cheap hand disruption in order to bring in removal. I cut Nyx-Fleece Ram because of the lack of viability for red to win in the real world. It's on Magic Online as a presence, but in live Magic, it's nonexistent.
I can safely say that it feels good to be back in the Esper camp. I hope you all enjoy the new take on Esper Control and the tweaking that is soon to follow to make it optimal. SCG Richmond was just one step of hopefully many successful ones.