The dominance of Esper Control came at the worst time…the end! After an exhilarating 8-0 run at the Invitational, I managed to piece together another high performance last weekend when the SCG Tour® came to Richmond.
I started off the day playing pretty poorly, making a deck registration error to give me my first loss in Round 2, and then playing as poorly as someone could play against Michael Majors in Round 6 on camera. I packed until 3 AM Thursday night, woke up at 6 AM to load my moving truck, and began my journey to Washington, DC the day before the event. I'm slightly on the husky side, so the unloading of furniture was a much more difficult process with all of the added exhaustion. After another zero-air-conditioning sleepless night, it was time to battle.
My quick and sloppy play plagued me until I finally got a good night's rest on Saturday night. Somehow I won out the remaining rounds of Day 1, defeating Hunter Nance in the day's final round of Swiss. He was playing Bant Company and the game between us became very casual because of how lopsided the matchup is in favor of Esper Control. Finishing the day 7-2 after such sloppy play was a delight and I knew I would tighten up for my Top 8 run the next day. Here is the final Esper Control list of today's Standard:
My Day 2 play was solid at the beginning. My first two rounds were victories based on some miracle bluffing and card representation against Bant Humans and U/R Eldrazi player.
The story behind the U/R Eldrazi matchup is an epic one and involved me asking my opponent to play his cards in a particular order, which he did to give me the victory, which could not have been achieved any other way. He resolved a Jace, Unraveler of Secrets on an empty battlefield turn 5, leaving me in a close-to-unwinnable position.
I knew he had a ton of countermagic after sideboarding, he kept his seven, and he topped a card with his planeswalker prior to drawing it. I untapped my lands, having only a pretty feeble play of Dark Petition with no spell mastery, thinking for a way out while rifling through my library. I then had an epiphany, seeing the future play of Ruinous Path leading to an easy loss, so I snagged a Dragonlord Silumgar and got to work. I mentioned how devastating an additional planeswalker would be to the battlefield, which against Esper Control is easily true.
He obliged by dropping Chandra, Flamecaller and attacking me for six after drawing a card with Jace, Unraveler of Secrets now at seven loyalty. After I untapped my lands, I quickly slammed my sixth mana source and then played Sorin, Grim Nemesis. This was the “tutor” card in my opponent's eyes, nuking his Chandra, Flamecaller for five and remaining intact with one loyalty. He then untapped and hit the tank, thinking about what to do with his abundance of mana and close-to-ultimating planeswalker. I casually pointed at his Wandering Fumarole and jokingly mentioned that my Sorin, Grim Nemesis was not long for this world.
He thought for a moment, animated it, and attacked Sorin, Grim Nemesis, slaying my planeswalker and now having only two mana open. He then used his Jace, Unraveler of Secrets, drew his card, and passed with his planeswalker now at eight loyalty. I untapped quickly, played my seventh land, and cast my Dragonlord Silumgar, asking out loud is there anything for two mana that could stop this from resolving. My opponent sunk his in chair a bit, allowed my Dragonlord Silumgar to resolve, and then had to combat a nigh-unbeatable Emblem. The bluffing and word usage from my side would have meant nothing if my opponent didn't have other options; however, he revealed his hand a few turns later and showed me four counterspells that he'd had since turn 5.
I knew there was no way to win the game without representing real threats, mentioning plays that “scare” me to my opponent, and then somehow resolving my Dragon prior to the ultimate of Jace, Unraveler of Secrets.
Games like these are the ones that have to be won in order to do great things in tournament Magic. I have had pretty weak results in some recent events, because I've never been a rules stickler, cutthroat in any way, and definitely never shot the angles to snatch a match here and there. I do, however, use bluffs when the loss is eminent. In Round 11, that verbally hidden tutor of Dragonlord Silumgar pushed me to a record of 9-2 and in prime position to Top 8 the SCG Tour® event in Richmond.
The remaining rounds were won fairly easily, facing good matchups against Bant Humans and Sultai Emerge piloted by the powerful Frank Skarren. I ran into Frank in Round 12, which led to a feature match on camera, and it wasn't particularly close. He's a more powerful mage than I; however, the Esper Control deck has the card Descend upon the Sinful, which is lights out the moment it resolves.
Both games were very one-sided, and when I find myself way ahead with planeswalkers and a full grip against an aggro/combo player with an empty battlefield and nothing, I play very quickly and sloppily. This led me to putting in a 4/4 flying Angel when I thought I had delirium, but in reality the pile of sorceries had no instant. It didn't matter in the game, because I was so far ahead with so much control over the battlefield and hand, but I still felt absolutely terrible. After realizing the error, I called the table judge on myself and asked if I could remove the Angel, but the head judge stepped in and decided too much had gone on since the resolution of the spell.
The only way I could make it right was pretend it wasn't there, allowing Frank to attack my planeswalker with his Distended Mindbender a few turns later and eventually casting Languish to remove the eyesore permanently.
The biggest issue with Esper Control is the time it takes to finish a round. When you are so far ahead that nothing can stop you, then the play must be kicked up to ultra-speed in order to finish the game in a timely manner. This leads to sloppy play and mistakes, so be careful, my friends, when trying to put your opponents out of their misery in the waning seconds of the round.
After defeating Frank, I found myself in a win-and-in situation against Danny Jessup, who was playing the same list as Frank Skarren. I didn't know how great the matchup was and I didn't want to jump to conclusions after beating Frank in a pretty easy two-game set.
Danny is no slouch and a member of the MetaGameGurus.com team that tests a heck of a lot more than I do. I'm just an old-man brewer that used to love instants but now is married to sorceries and planeswalkers.
This battle ended up being just as lopsided as the match against Frank, using the power of a topdecked Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet to make the match unwinnable for my Sultai Emerge friend. In the final round I drew with my local compadre Gavin Schober to enter the top eight as the number two seed, paired against the legendary Frank Skarren yet again.
The Top 8 took about thirty minutes or so to fire, and at that point I hadn't played Magic for about two hours. Yet the rust was absent in my quarterfinals match against Frank, because after facing it a few times today and him personally, the plan of attack was clear and vicious. He won Game 1 with an exceptional, aggressive start, but in the final two games his deck played at a fair speed with mine, and we all know how that story ends. I defeated Frank and prepared to battle my best matchup in the world, Bant Company.
This is the matchup that Esper Control was born to face, and I was far too confident.
I kept a hand with no blue sources on the play Game 1 because it had a Transgress the Mind and Grasp of Darkness, but I died immediately after missing a few land drops to his Collected Company army. Game 2, I was determined to not go out the same way, mulliganing a very similar hand. My six was mediocre, but going to five wasn't an option against his easy keep on seven. The power Esper Control has over Bant Company was clearly visible this game, as I easily took over the game in the later turns against a very good draw from his side, but the rust from a long weekend of playing, or perhaps just an absent-minded play, cost me the game. I was keeping a Sylvan Advocate in check with a Jace, Telepath Unbound, but for some reason I switched the shrink ability to a newly cast Reflector Mage.
He then attacked me with just his Sylvan Advocate. I quickly animated my Shambling Vent and blocked. He looked at me to pass priority, I said damage, and he then pointed at the graveyard where it belonged. I was speechless, helplessly looking at this Grasp of Darkness in my hand that wasn't cast, because I thought his creature was a 2/3.
You would think it was no big deal, because in the end it was just a lost land. But that fallen Shambling Vent was land number seven for a fresh Emrakul, the Promised End I drew. After that draw, he continued to fill the battlefield with topdecks and I continued to draw weak spells and a land that enters the battlefield tapped the turn before I died.
A Top 4 performance is nothing to shake a stick at. I rarely believe that a tournament is mine to win, and any player out there will tell you I am the first to circle the “split prizes” option.
This tournament was different. This deck was special. I knew it at Pro Tour Eldritch Moon where I opted not to play it, I knew it at the last Invitational where Modern derailed me, and I knew it at this SCG Tour® event in Richmond.
The true travesty, regarding the future of this Esper Control masterpiece, is how few components will survive the upcoming rotation. The loss of Jace, Vryn's Prodigy and Languish give the death blow to this version, so adaptation will be necessary. I began to sift through the blue, white, and black cards to piece together a post-rotation list, but then saw the unveiling of the greatest planeswalker since Jace, Vryn's Prodigy.
Chandra, Torch of Defiance has immediately pushed me back into red without question. There is close to a zero percent chance that I can get away from playing it in the first tournament where Kaladesh is legal.
This planeswalker has four abilities and will live up to the hype it has already received. We have card advantage, damage source, mana production, defensive removal, and an ultimate that is game-ending. It's the planeswalker that control, midrange, and aggro all want a piece of.
Control typically can abuse the power of planeswalkers better than other archetypes by creating a battlefield safe for one to flourish and begin to take over the game. Removal early on with any form of disruption and leaving out one creature to block is enough to get the Chandra, Torch of Defiance rolling.
At the moment there are a few red spells that can fill in the removal gaps left by rotation, but it is far too early to declare it the dominant color over blue, white, or black. When I'm writing my next article two weeks from now, I'll have a decklist ready to fire for my control brethren to pilot in their first tournaments of the new Standard.
I can tell you confidently that you will need three or four Chandra, Torch of Defiance, but besides her, it is too soon to decide.
I am sad to see this powerful version of Esper Control rotate, but I look forward to a using this blue planeswalker (that is disguised as a red planeswalker) in my future control builds for quite some time.