Sorry for the long wait, friends, but life has been hectic with my wedding quickly approaching at the end of the month. I will give a short rundown of Standard including the steps you need to take in order to be successful, but let's first dive into Legacy.
Legacy is a format that I long hated and avoided like the plague, but now it seems to be my strongest area. A format where I can play Brainstorm, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, the best removal, Stoneforge Mystic, disruption, AND Lingering Souls…what's there to hate? The disdain I felt for Legacy was rooted in a much older incarnation where there were three decks that everyone played and the format was quite stale.
Wizards tried to boost Legacy popularity with a Grand Prix here and there, but the real surge came from StarCityGames.com attaching a Legacy Open to every Standard Open. Now if you go to an Open Series to play Standard, it almost seems wasteful to skip a high-level event the next day. When a format is stale and unpopular, the best solution is to force it to be played more in this fashion. With more opportunities to play the format, the innovation, popularity, and amount of skilled player participation in Legacy increased ten-fold.
Legacy rocks now. Delver turned the aggro world upside down, Mental Misstep forced an emergency banning, and now Abrupt Decay has spun Legacy fanatics into a BUG world. The ability to destroy opponents' permanents without the risk of it being countered is a tremendous advantage, especially if your opponent isn't packing the same heat.
Each set has brought new excitement to the format because of continuous support by SCG and an increase in GPs offered by the makers of the game. There are so many different options to choose from when entering the Legacy arena that the only true problem is the financial investment required. I'm hoping Modern Masters helps reduce the cost of playing Legacy with reprints like Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf, but the duals and fetches still hold some newer players hostage when trying to build a competitive deck.
The New Legacy (Same as The Old)
Legacy is a format dominated by the cheapest of spells. I have been known as a wielder of "expensive sorceries," but even I have to accept that the average mana cost of spells in my deck is around 1.5. The format is fast with Goblins and Delvers actively racing at the opponent, so there's no time to set up with a Wrath into a planeswalker.
The best card in Legacy at the moment in my opinion is Sword to Plowshares. The one mana white removal spell is nearly gold in all non-combo matches and completely necessary to ward off gigantic Goyfs or even deadly Deathrite Shamans. When building an effective Legacy deck, you must be equipped with at least four early removal spells to ensure your survival to the late game…in most cases that's turn 4-5. Swords alone won't save you, and you need the power of blue card selection and black disruption to stave off any combo deck from destroying you early.
That's why Esper has all the tools to give you a winning shot against each deck in the format.
Esper isn't the only deck that gives you a great game against all the Legacy decks out there, and I know this after watching the power of BUG unfold each and every round I battled against it in Baltimore. BUG also has all the early removal you need; blue card draw and countermagic and green pressure from the creatures do nearly the same thing that Esper does to be successful.
There are pros and cons of both decks, but the moral of the story is that both Esper Stoneblade and BUG Control aren't underdogs to any deck in Legacy. When you sit across from your opponent with one of these decks, you aren't devastated when you learn they're playing Goblins, High Tide, RUG Delver, Maverick, etc. Sure, some matchups are rougher than others, but when piloting these decks there are no decks that are unbeatable. That's the way I feel when playing Esper Stoneblade, and that's the way I would have felt playing BBD's deck as well.
Here's the most recent list that yielded me success:
Piloting Esper Stoneblade has become almost natural for me at this point. The first time I picked up the deck, I lost in the Top 4 of an Invitational because of attacking with a 2/2 into an untapped Mishra's Factory. Now I finally achieved a victory with the deck in Baltimore.
I've learned a thing or two about the deck in the past year. There are some cards that are ok, some that are good, and some that are on an elite level that make them the reason for winning on a regular basis. Here's the breakdown of cards you can play in Esper Stoneblade into the three levels of playability so you'll have the freedom to sculpt this deck to fit your play style.
Cards That Do Some Work
Vindicate: This one-of has served me well over the last year or so. The ability to destroy a Jace, Sylvan Library, Tarmogoyf, Maze of Ith, etc. gives you infinite reach in your deck. I don't think I could live without having an out against any threat or problem that exists on the board. Sometimes, I've even forgot I was live and had a pleasant surprise off a Ponder. This card is quite easy to cut for most players as most one-ofs are, but I suggest keeping this in your deck for the long haul.
Intuition: This acts as the fourth Lingering Souls in the deck. Martell had four Lingering Souls back in the day, but I felt that was too many. Intuition gives the deck the ability to acquire all of the Spirits in one fell swoop. This blue spell lets us do much more than create flyers though. Multiple times I have used it to retrieve anything from a guaranteed removal spell using Snapcaster Mage, Surgical Extraction, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Stoneforge Mystic.
Depending on what's in your hand, you can also use it to trick an opponent into giving you a missing piece that appears to be harmless for your perfect grip. This is another one-of that I don't think I would want to live without (there won't be a trend of "don't cut," I promise), but if the card was terrible it would have already been dropped.
Snapcaster Mage: Snapcaster Mage is either an all-star or a bum. He ends up in this category because sometimes you don't have three mana to devote to his optimal use against Wasteland and Stifle. Other times you slam a Thoughtseize, then an Inquisition, then Snapcaster does it again and your opponent just withers away right before your very eyes. I can easily see this three-of drop to a two-of or be replaced altogether, but like I said sometimes he's exactly what the doctor ordered.
Ponder: This is the most criticized card in the deck. Nearly all other Stoneblade players have cut Ponder completely. Ponder is a card that enables a deck full of one-ofs. I can see Ponder being removed if you start chopping the one-ofs and two-ofs to make a more consistent shell, but after sideboard especially I love Ponder in this deck. Stoneblade is a deck full of answers and vicious threats, and Ponder amplifies the power of each. Like old Standard, a land light hand with a Ponder is almost always a keeper unlike those one to two land Brainstorm hands that can leave you high and dry.
Counterspell: Counterspell is on the train of cards I like to keep around due to having faith in them. Having outs and answers to everything is a quality that most decks in Magic don't get to appreciate. We have Force of Will, but Counterspell gives a resource that doesn't require a gash in our hand strength and is an easier Snapcaster Mage target. I've never been hurt by having this in hand or heavily regretted it, even against the aggro decks. I mean, when has Counterspell ever been truly bad?
Cards That Do Heavy Work
Brainstorm: The closest to Ancestral Recall we're going to get in Legacy. Ancestral Vision always tempts me, but I like the card draw package we have in this deck already without trying wild new things. I don't need to go into detail on the power of Brainstorm and shuffle effects because you guys already know why it's one of the most played cards in Legacy. I put it in this category because it's a staple, it's amazing, but it isn't a finisher that puts Stoneblade over the top of other decks in the format.
Force of Will: This card has risen, fallen, and risen again in Legacy. I like to joke around about how a deck that's hot now and falls from the power rankings is destined to achieve victory again. Legacy is cyclical, so trends to take over temporarily, but old decks can always resurface and appear as top contenders once again. Force of Will is card disadvantage, hurts you, and seems terrible against a ton of decks. That's solely on appearance. This card saves your butt more times than any other against the dreaded combo decks, and it's almost foolish to leave home without them. Counter it for free, lose a card, and move on…you'll be happy you did.
Inquisition of Kozilek / Thoughtseize: These cards are the primary reason to play black in Esper Stoneblade. I've seen fellow Stoneblade players try U/W then revert back to Esper because of the losses endured due to the lack of disruption. These hand disruption spells are necessary to defeat all non-aggro decks and are effective when pulling sideboard hate out of your opponents' hands (Choke, Armageddon, etc.) I never board out Inquisition of Kozilek and only board out Thoughtseize against decks with Mountains because of how useful they are in almost any matchup.
The negatives of these cards have been the same throughout the ages… They suck later in the game. In Legacy more than any other format, you find yourself topdecking an awful lot due to the power level of the cards. When you draw a couple Thoughtseizes late, you will find yourself on the losing side of a topdeck war with the quickness; that's another reason why we aren't running more than four copies combined in the main. The third Inquisition in the board has been wonderful, especially when you have to drop a Thoughtseize against a semi-aggressive deck such as RUG Delver. I like the discard package here and wouldn't change it regardless of format changes.
Supreme Verdict: This spicy one-of replaced the one of Terminus in the main. Supreme Verdict is better in almost every scenario than Terminus. First off, you aren't going to die to a Zoo deck prior to turn 4 due to the availability of Swords, countermagic, and hand disruption…not to mention Lingering Souls. The fact that it's uncounterable has made the Delver matchup much better, allowing me to blow past it three times including the finals of the last Open.
Before Supreme Verdict, my matchup against Delver was rough, and Thoughtseizes / Inquisitions had to be used to snag creatures. Now when I target them with disruption, I instantly pull out Brainstorms and Ponders, leaving them with creatures. This makes it hard for them to decide whether to leave their Delver out there and just say go or play another creature. This allows for very fortuitous Wraths that clear their board and while their hand is also destroyed. Some of you might read this and shout, "Well, I'd hold back!" It's tough to say that in a game of Magic where you know my spells consist of mostly targeted removal, making it very difficult to sit with only one or two creatures on the battlefield.
There is a second Supreme Verdict in the board along with one Perish to really put pressure on green opponents to dance that fine line between overextension and low pressure board states. The very existence of Supreme Verdict is enough to tilt the scale of power toward Esper Stoneblade in similar matchups and scenarios.
Umezawa's Jitte: Ah, the Jitte…so powerful against most decks but garbage against combo. Jitte pressure in our deck takes a bit too much time to build. Even though it's a four-damage boost after a zero the first turn, it simply isn't good enough to make a difference. Jitte also falls to artifact removal pretty easily, and I'm still not sold on Academy Ruins in the deck to mitigate that. The decks that blow up your artifacts are the decks that play four Wasteland, and to add another colorless land is hurtful to your overall strategy of casting your spells. They will leave you with the Ruins but take out your colored land, which is devastating. I can see one in the board maybe, but definitely not in the main.
Back to Jitte…it was banned in Modern and is fantastic in every format with creatures, so it still warrants a slot in the main to punish those running a low toughness army. Leave it at one and replace it with a Sword of your choice from the board to punish control/combo decks early on.
Engineered Explosives: Explosives is a card that's saved me on a regular basis. Its ability to clear the board of any threatening permanent makes it feel like a Vindicate and warrants a spot in the maindeck. Its limitations are obviously threatening lands, planeswalkers, and Snapcaster interactions, which allows Vindicate to have a slightly separate role. Explosives also deals with multiple Goyfs or Mongooses in a way that's both mana efficient and can be activated on your opponent's turn.
I can go over hundreds of other scenarios where Explosives can make a game changing play, but this is also a card I never board out unless I'm against a combo deck that has literally zero targets for it. I tried playing multiple, and that was horrendous in this version of Esper Stoneblade, so I'd stick to the one of safety net.
Cards That Do The Most Work
Jace, the Mind Sculptor: The man, the myth, the legend…when will this card go away? The answer is never. Wizards of the Coast was proud of their all-powerful planeswalker, and it's here to stay in Legacy. Most people will agree that Jace isn't unbeatable in Legacy, and even though every non-Delver blue deck packs three or four of them, they don't need him to ensure victory.
I know for me personally that I will never battle in a format that Jace, the Mind Sculptor is legal in without playing him because he provides a different kind of special feeling when you resolve him, Brainstorm, and pass the turn with victory in sight. There are tons of matchups that depend solely on the Jace war…whoever can stick one for a couple turns will be the victor. This planeswalker is my "expensive sorcery" that will never get old.
Batterskull: 50% of decks in Legacy immediately lose when Batterskull hits the table. Delver can't stop it with pitiful Bolts, Goblins looks at a 4/4 on turn 3 and cries, control decks spend the rest of the match catching up and eventually lose, and combo decks have a moderate clock to contend with while trying to win through disruption. Batterskull is what Exalted Angel could never be and continues to win tournaments with Stoneforge Mystic by its side.
Stoneforge Mystic: The bread and butter of the deck. Stoneforge Mystic applies pressure on turn 3 with a Batterskull friend. Stoneforge was a menace in Standard for the better part of a year and easily transferred itself to Legacy as a major player. This is another card that needs little explanation on why it's good. Without Stoneforge Mystic, this deck we know and love wouldn't have the teeth to win, and the Kor Artificer is a must counter or kill on turn 2 or the game ends as quickly as it started for most decks.
Lingering Souls: The best card in the deck. I've said that since day one, and Martell reaffirmed that when I spoke to him at the last GP that Lingering Souls is a card everyone tries to drop the number of or cut completely. If you were a bird on my shoulder during this past Open or any Invitational, you would have seen Lingering Souls pull me out of bitter defeat into a stellar victory. This card is more amazing in Legacy than in Standard due to the complete absence of sweepers, Curses and other hate cards. No card produces as much creature, protection, and threat advantage as Lingering Souls, and when you don't draw it in a Legacy match you truly feel the pain.
I can wager that people will start to play some hate and the deck will have to respond to it with enchantment removal and/or boarded in countermagic, but even hate can't fully combat it. Every match I play comes down to the use of the Spirit machine. When I play well with it, I find victory where no other card would have saved me, and that's more than enough reason to run the card with confidence. Playing three is the perfect number to keep a balance of threats and disruption in the deck due to the amount of card draw and digging. I used to board it out against a multitude of decks, but now I just take out a couple against High Tide, Storm, and other decks that need the full disruption package with ONE threat to topple their advances.
People will try to talk you out of Lingering Souls as they've tried with me, and it's your job to tell them off. Tell them you enjoy a card that gains you an absurd amount of life, threats, and answers to opposing threats. Tell them you enjoy a card that you carelessly toss in the graveyard if countered over and over to create room for Jace and Stoneforge threats. Lingering Souls is at its strongest in Legacy, and you can see its power in Modern as well with Jund decks splashing white just to have a taste of Spirits. Lingering Souls in Standard, Modern and Legacy…Spirits for life, friends.
The sideboard is filled with one-ofs that all serve specific purposes. They fill in the gaps for matchups that are tough and crush opponents piloting decks that are mainstream. Here are the different cards and the reasoning behind them.
Surgical Extraction: Our tough matchup is Reanimator, which has fallen off the face of the planet. Thank God. After Reanimator, I 'm never excited to face a Dredge deck, but in the last three meetings I've escaped without loss due to opponent mistakes, mulligans, and general luck on my part. The matchup is a nightmare, but Surgical helps.
Surgical's interaction with Snapcaster is another reason why the little Wizard is necessary in the deck. I always board in three against combo to add to the disruption one-two punch and one or two are boarded in against the control mirror. Hitting Jace is the ultimate goal, but you don't want to draw too many of them.
Cabal Therapy: These called shots work very well with the five hand disruption spells and Surgical Extractions as well as Snapcaster Mage and Stoneforge Mystic. You can do horrible things to your opponent's hand after board, and these add to the chaos. These are meant for control mirrors and combo.
Darkblast / Supreme Verdict / Perish: Creature decks will always be there, and these tools help our matchup against them. I feel that Esper Stoneblade really wrecks Maverick, Goblins, and random Goyf decks, but you never want to leave your Forces in and these cards easily replace the counterspell post-sideboard.
Sword of Feast and Famine: Used mainly to replace Jitte against decks where Jitte isn't very good. Untapping the land is the big bonus, but I've been toying with the idea of playing Sword of Fire and Ice. Try out both and let me know which you like better.
Spell Pierce: I board these in against decks that have spells that must be countered (Hymn, Jace, etc.) and combo decks. Delver and control decks want you to keep your Forces in due to the grind battle that goes on for multiple turns and leaves both players handless. Sometimes, I leave one Force and one Counterspell in to add to the two Spell Pierces, which gives us plenty of countermagic for scary things. Don't forget that we have hand disruption to protect us if our counters fall short.
Disenchant: For pesky artifacts and enchantments.
Blue Elemental Blast: A one-of against red decks of any variety.
This Standard rundown will be brief and includes my most up-to-date Esper Walkers deck from Baltimore.
SCG Standard Open: Baltimore taught me that this deck has a huge problem with Reanimator. Purify the Grave is simply not enough to guarantee safety against getting "Hoofed" as we like to call it here in VA, so Rest in Peace is a must. This means that when boarding against Reanimator, you have to take out a few Souls and an Alchemy to prevent hurting yourself with the enchantment bomb. I feel that since Reanimator is such a bad matchup, I want three in sideboard, and the cuts I'd make are -1 Drownyard, -2 Purify the Grave.
After Drowning a few opponents in the yard, I think two is the perfect amount. Your matchup against Bant Control is almost laughable, and the countermagic/planeswalker density is good enough to best your control mirror on a regular basis. I know that Rest in Peace will only really help one matchup, but since Reanimator is so popular it warrants hate in our sideboard. Once you resolve Rest in Peace, your planeswalkers and four Verdicts should be enough to keep the threats at bay, and Drownyard becomes an instant all-star in the matchup when borderline unusable in the early turns.
The other matchups are mostly favorable; I've had little trouble with Thragtusk control decks, G/W Aggro, B/R, and the control mirror. The toughest matchup is Flash, and I usually split matches with them live and online. The Curses in the sideboard as well as the planeswalkers can put a hurting on the Flash player if you can trick them into wasting countermagic early or back it up with your own negate. If your opponent resolves a Sphinx's Revelation, don't freak out, just move to plan B…Drowning time.
The reason why I like Esper so much in Standard is that I don't feel helpless in any matchup. Playing four Supreme Verdict allow for hands that can just ranch enemy aggro players. Playing a ton of planeswalkers, Lingering Souls, and countermagic creates scenarios that are nightmares for a midrange or control mirror opponent. This is another deck you can craft to your specific metagame to beat a full range of decks, and the key to it is practice.
This article was more Legacy driven than usual, and I hope that you Standard fellas are ok with a list and a brief explanation of the changes in Esper Walkers. These two formats are here to stay, and with Legacy on the rise I feel that it's time for players that haven't touched the elder format to begin gathering the cards for it. I know Legacy is absurdly pricey, but do what I did at the beginning…borrow, borrow, borrow.
Not everyone has a collector in their area that can just loan Legacy decks, but if you're traveling to a GP or an Open Series where you know Legacy players will be, increase your social circle to include those who are cool with helping new players to the format get their foot in the door. I borrowed Esper Stoneblade at the first Invitational I played in this year from someone in my area, and with it I hit big. Magic is a community, and there are people out there willing to help if you ask. Or you can just burn the crap out of your opponent for a low, low price.
Until next time friends.
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