My initial instinct was to start writing a victory lap piece after the announcement of Dig Through Time's demise in Legacy. Words cannot adequately express my joy over the removal of an abusive delve spell that should never have existed in the Eternal formats. It's such a fantastic card in Standard, where it is fair and balanced, but it gives too great of an edge to combo decks in Modern and Legacy.
I wrote an article a long time ago discussing the negative implications of both Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time outside of Standard. Once the bannings took place soon after, I was shocked to see Dig Through Time survive the culling in Legacy. Clearly Wizards of the Coast was taking the Checkers approach (using the here and now strategy) instead of Chess (mentally scouting a few turns ahead). Treasure Cruise was ridiculous, and Dig Through Time was right behind it. After the successful run at the recent Open Series in Washington D.C., I restated publicly the need to remove Dig Through Time to return power to hand disruption and out of the hands of non-interactive decks. I personally lost a match after casting Thoughtseize on turn 1, Cabal Therapy on turn 2, Snapcaster Mage using Thoughtseize and flashing back Cabal Therapy on turn 3 and resolving Jace, the Mind Sculptor on turn 4 when his known card the turn before was an Island and he drew one unknown. At the end of that turn, the unknown card was cast and, sure enough, was Dig Through Time. He then untapped, played Show and Tell, Omniscience, and the Ponder he drew for turn. Needless to say I conceded shortly after.
Legacy is an extremely powerful format and there will always be good cards, but that doesn't mean we should just make it a walk in the park for combo decks without keeping them honest. Now they'll have to go back to killing us on turn 1 with Emrakul, the Aeons Torn and run the high risk, high variance builds of Show and Tell. That's good old fashioned card slinging!
That was the short spiel I wanted to dedicate to the Legacy bannings and restrictions. We have a lot to discuss with the official BFZ release this weekend at #SCGIndy. The Esper Control list I posted a few weeks ago was in the beta stages and with the testing complete, I have a list ready to go.
Here is what's different from last time:
As expected, the deck needed a few heavy tweaks to reach its full potential. The biggest change was the lowering of the curve and increasing the basic land count to help the lands enter the battlefield untapped more often than not. The Blighted Cataract was terrible and was easily the first card to get the axe. It had much lower upside than anticipated in the lategame, with the mana being rarely available. The four Shambling Vents were enough lategame power when my spells ran dry and that land taps for two colored mana instead of zero. The colorless mana land was detrimental in multiple games, so I will not include them in three-color decks for the foreseeable future. After the Plains was added, I didn't have any regular mana issues with my matches. The biggest thorn in my side was the amount of matches where my lands were entering the battlefield tapped early on, but that was to be expected. I was still winning those games and never had issues with my future lands being a turn behind. Having a guarantee that every land after turn 4 enters the battlefield untapped is a huge relief. It allows for an absurd level of planning and gives you the ability to always cast multiple spells in a turn. My Dig Through Times in the old Temple days would regularly consist of the spell I need with a guaranteed untapped land. Now that we have Battle lands, chances are we will already have that untapped seventh land necessary to wreak havoc the following turn.
The curve had to come down a bit and that was accomplished by adding a fourth Clash of Wills, dropping Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and cutting Treasure Cruise. Treasure Cruise is a sweet spell with all of these fetchlands, but I find it always gets cut early. Dig Through Time is just too powerful, and no other card draw spell is necessary when packing four. There are cantrips with Ojutai's Command, Fathom Seer,and Narset Transcendent; Jace, Vryn's Prodigy produces card advantage randomly, and even our new friend Ob Nixilis Reignited can draw cards or generate a removal two-for-one. With all these spells, Dig Through Time is all we need to continue to fill up our hand. This deck is much different than those packing Satyr Wayfinder, which made Ugin, the Spirit Dragon lose stock. It is just too expensive to play in the maindeck, and I currently don't have a huge role for it even in the sideboard. The haymaker planeswalker is great, but in this 26-land control deck's launch, he'll have to sit the bench.
These additions are all cards that have really shined during testing. Clash of Wills has been great at the two drop slot as a roadblock to all midrange and aggressive strategies. The early removal is so weak in the current Standard that I became a huge cheerleader for Clash of Wills to do the trick on turn 2 or 3. Lucky for all of us it has. There are some games where Esper Control gets overrun even after countering their two drop, but those are the games that are lost regardless. The sideboard's main goal is to derail our only bad matchup - Mono-Red Aggro. I had hoped that losing burn would cripple the deck, but somehow it survived even with very few options from Battle for Zendikar. I want to make it clear that game 1 is bad, but overall the match is not. After sideboarding in four more two drop creatures, Ultimate Price, and the fourth Ojutai's Command, it becomes a rout the other way around. I had really hoped to free up some sideboard slots after playing some matches against red, but if we want to win, we need all of the ammunition available.
The only other changes I made outside of lowering my curve and removing weak spells was some lateral swaps due to matchups. The four Languishes were too narrow for the format, which prompted the inclusion of Planar Outburst. Planar Outburst at first look was frustrating and kind of lame, but after using it, there is some upside that has become pretty relevant. With copies of Ruinous Path and Scatter to the Winds, my lands are often animated in the lategame. Awaken overall is a fairly weak mechanic, but I suspected that coming in. The power level has dropped across the board and cards are generally weaker, but control still does its thing. This deck kills all of their creatures, counters all of the spells, and fills the board with planeswalkers to finish the job.
The other change made for matchup purposes was swapping one Sorin, Solemn Visitor for one Narset Transcendent. Narset Transcendent is still one of my favorite planeswalkers ever printed and finally the format has slowed back down to a pace that welcomes the card advantage planeswalker back into the fray. Sorin, Solemn Visitor is still a fantastic uppercut from out of the blue, giving lifelink to an animated land from awaken, tokens, Fathom Feeder, Silumgar, the Drifting Death, or a combination of all of those to put the life total out of Siege Rhino's reach in an instant. That said, two copies of Sorin was simply too many in this deck. If Elspeth, Sun's Champion was legal, I'd run more, but Gideon, Ally of Zendikar doesn't have the same life expectancy with less loyalty and less protection. Setting up the two can be difficult, but having that one Sorin, Solemn Visitor floating around, waiting to be retrieved by Dig Through Time, has been powerful enough. Narset Transcendent goes back to being the planeswalker with an unreachable loyalty for opposing creatures. The more the format slows down, the more I'll play, but at this point it's just the one.
What Beats Us
This is a tricky question to tackle, because the testing results have been the same here as they've been in the past when sets rotate. Control is absolutely diesel when the format is in flux and that is very evident in Battle for Zendikar Standard. Game 1 against Mono-Red Aggro, decks with a ton of two drops, or planeswalker heavy enemies are the toughest matchups to encounter. Ruinous Path is a necessary evil, but has a tough job dealing with planeswalkers like Hero's Downfall did. There are ways to improve these matchups, and I have some suggestions for those who wish to customize this build to do so.
Adding multiple copies of Despise helps against the decks that can defeat Esper Control; however, any alterations may have negative effects on other matchups. Despise is a card I wish I could fit in the maindeck and eventually I may have three copies over Fathom Feeder and a Clash of Wills. The little deathtoucher has been pretty good for me so far, but if the format doesn't have a whole lot of creatures to block on the ground and is full of Mantis Riders, then a change will definitely occur.
Other than the aggressive strategies, there aren't any other decks announced so far that threaten the success of Esper Control. The decks we just beat senselessly are Abzan (Midrange, Aggro, and Control), other generic midrange decks with green as the base, and U/W, U/B, Bant, and/or Esper Dragons Control. The decks that present a problem to us, but are pretty evenly matched are decks with dash creatures (B/R/x Dragons especially), Mono-Green Eldrazi, and decks that play four Hangarback Walkers that aren't Abzan. The evenly matched decks really depend on our ability to keep the board clean in the early turns and one-for-one them in the mid and lategame. Ojutai's Command is a house against the expensive enemy threat strategy, countering their mana sink and returning Jace, Vryn's Prodigy or Fathom Feeder back to the battlefield. They also have very little or zero interaction with our planeswalkers, so we can continue to apply pressure while keeping them off of a ton of mana or the big threats that come from it. I enjoy the matchup personally, but it can be tricky to win at times. Despise and Negate from the sideboard help solidify the matchup when used properly, so practice and be sure you play it safe after resolving a planeswalker to prevent their big threat from taking the game over.
The deck has a ton of good matchups, some toss ups, and very few matchups you want to avoid completely. There isn't much more you can ask for from a deck in a format that is about to kick start in a few hours. The cards that survived rotation are more powerful than I initially anticipated. Each piece of the control puzzle has pulled its weight, especially in the sweeper/win condition department. Languish has been superb in this new Standard format. There are so many threats that all fall under five toughness, and our four mana board wipe comes in and takes care of business. The only reason I cut the fourth copy for the Planar Outburst was to give some diversity in case of an enemy Silumgar, the Drifting Death or multiple Siege Rhinos.
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ob Nixilis Reignited have been overly powerful, dominating the battlefield with abilities that win the game and remove threats. The clear winner of all of the Battle for Zendikar singles for me is Ob Nixilis Reignited. As discussed in my last article, the five mana planeswalker has a Gideon Jura feel to it when it comes down and removes the true threat immediately. Many games I had Jace, Telepath Unbound the turn before, dropped Ob Nixilis Reignited, killed the bigger creature and shrank the little one. It's a great removal spell and so much more for the mana cost. Testing confirmed a lot of the opinions I wrote a few weeks ago, so be sure to give the last one a read for more insight on the card choices I made when sculpting the pilot version of Esper Control.
I can't wait to unleash this deck in live tournament play, as well as see you all dominate with it! Let the controlling begin!