"Elspeth, Sun's Champion."
*opens the door*
Keeping Elspeth waiting outside in the winter would be a real cold thing to do.
I have a confession to make. I'm in love with a girl. This girl costs six mana, and a lot of the time she makes three Soldiers when she comes into play. She's really cool. We get along great. I think I'm going to ask Evangel of Heliod to marry me next year, but up until that point I think it's best if I focus on more currently relevant things, like how powerful Elspeth is. Sorry for getting sidetracked.
Let me put it this way. Elspeth does a lot of things. A lot of good things. A lot of things that your opponent probably doesn't want her to do. She makes Soldiers. She destroys big creatures. She lets you one-shot your opponent when you ultimate her. She gets Thoughtseized on turn 5 every game. She really does it all.
Elspeth is one of the best cards in Standard, and Elspeth isn't seeing nearly as much play as she should be. That needs to be fixed, and I'm going to go about fixing it the only way I know how—by writing an article about it. Gotta raise that awareness.
I'm also going to play her in decks. There's also that.
Right. Elspeth. Decks and stuff.
That's my Esper list from the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas last month. I went 6-0 in the Swiss rounds with the deck before I was unfortunately "dispatched" by Shaheen Soorani in the Top 8. I put dispatched in quotes because I'd rather use a long string of very vulgar words and terrible depictions of unspeakable actions to describe how our match went, but I'll hold off for the sake of the children.
Needless to say, the deck served me very well, at least up to that point. I had been crushing Magic Online the week leading up to the tournament, decided to stick with my testing despite last-minute jitters, and the result was more than I hoped for.
Why did I put the deck down? Well, I have this thing where I tend to play a deck up to the point where I get completely destroyed in a tournament. After that I get a bit discouraged and don't really want to play the deck again. A lot of times I will never pick it back up, even if the deck is very good and I'm making a mistake by avoiding it.
It happened with Mono-Black Devotion. I got demolished at a 50K tournament last year and haven't played Mono-Black in a single tournament since despite being one of the players who helped push it into the limelight and despite the deck still being a completely dominant force in Standard.
It happened again with this Esper deck. I 0-2 dropped an IQ with the deck a few weeks after the Invitational. I put down the deck. Out of sight, out of mind.
The problem with my line of thinking is that it simply isn't logical—it's emotional. In the Open in New Jersey last year, Chris VanMeter won the tournament with a Junk Reanimator list I had been working on. I went 0-2 drop in that same tournament with that same list. If I were to base my decision on whether or not to keep playing Junk Reanimator on my own personal results from that tournament, I would have given up the deck, moved on to something else, and missed out on some of the success I had with the archetype.
Bad tournaments happen for a variety of reasons. It doesn't necessarily mean that the deck is bad or that you should immediately give it up as a result. It certainly is cause to reevaluate the deck—reconsider whether it is actually a wise metagame choice or not—but not the kind of thing where you should immediately trash it. Maybe you played badly, ran badly, or just hit bad matchups. There are a large number of factors that can result in a poor performance that aren't directly related to the deck choice itself.
Recently, I decided to pick up Esper again. I've been crushing on Magic Online again with the deck. Shady's back. Backstreet's back. Timberlake's bringing sexy back. Really, there's no reason to believe we can't also bring Esper back.
Esper has really fallen off the radar, and I also feel like it is very well positioned right now. Those are both two excellent things because I like this Esper deck a lot and my list is very poorly positioned in the mirror match, at least in game 1. I want nobody else to play control, yet I want to win with a version of it tuned to beat the rest of the field.
Would it be really dumb if I wrote an article to possibly cause people to reconsider playing control decks and thus potentially increase my chance of playing against one?
For the most part, this looks very similar to the list I played in the Invitational. There are only a few minor cosmetic changes. I've cut cards like Dimir Charm, and I'm now just playing the full four copies of Devour Fleshes. My favorite Intro Deck of all time is probably Devour for Power because that's what this deck is looking to do. While Dimir Charm was the perfect removal spell for Mutavault, Master of Waves, Pack Rat, and Nightveil Specter, the fact is that there are now decks in the format playing cards like Fleecemane Lion; Stormbreath Dragon; and Polukranos, World Eater.
I don't want any removal spells that could potentially be complete bricks or removal spells that are limited to just killing a few creatures that I don't really want to kill that badly. Dimir Charm can certainly kill Elvish Mystic, but so can that Supreme Verdict on turn 4 along with everything else. Now thanks to Devour Flesh when they play some huge monster after Supreme Verdict, I can aggressively encourage them to sacrifice it. "That's a nice Stormbreath Dragon. Would you relocate it to your graveyard? Please and thank you."
I've also trimmed down on Blood Baron of Vizkopa for a similar reason. Blood Baron is a complete beating against decks like Mono-Black Devotion, which is still a force to be sure, but it was never that impressive against Mono-Blue Devotion and is actively bad against a deck like G/R Monsters. Like truly actively bad. It's pay five mana, your opponent removes two counters from Domri Rade. Sometimes it's pay five mana, your opponent discards a dead Mizzium Mortars they were never going to get value from. Either way, it's not where you want to be.
While the full complement of maindeck El Barone might not be where it's at, I definitely feel this Esper deck is very good right now. Why's that?
Esper is a fantastic shell for Elspeth. For one, Elspeth really fits the game plan of the deck. Elspeth and Supreme Verdict go hand in hand. Elspeth's -3 can augment Supreme Verdict by providing additional ways to sweep away creatures in matchups where that matters. Elspeth's +1 can gum up the board enough to really pressure your opponent to overextend in order to have enough of a board presence to attack through Elspeth. That's a perfect scenario for a Supreme Verdict to come down and ruin their lunch.
Secondly, Elspeth is actually insanely powerful just on her own. I think she fits well in an Esper deck because it can protect her with Dissolve and Thoughtseize and it has enough lands to make her casting cost easy to achieve. But frankly, the fact of the matter is that Elspeth is part of a Standard-defining seven-card combo. Six lands, one Elspeth. We don't really need that much of a surrounding base to make Elspeth a good card. All we need is Elspeth. And love. But mostly just Elspeth.
If that's the case, shouldn't I just play the B/W Control deck that has been putting up good results lately? While I think that deck is very good, I'd rather have Jace, Detention Sphere, Supreme Verdict, and Sphinx's Revelation. I think those cards are too good to pass up, and I feel they play better with Elspeth. Elspeth's -3 is a lot weaker in a deck that plays both Desecration Demon and Blood Baron of Vizkopa.
What I ultimately love most about Esper however is the sideboard plan. It's very simple. It mostly revolves around four copies of Nightveil Specter. Yet for some reason that actually creates a huge amount of pressure for other decks to deal with. Even if you know that it's coming, I still feel like it's difficult to properly sideboard against Nightveil Specter.
I don't think it's a coincidence that I have a very high win rate against Mono-Black Devotion with this list.
Similarly, how does Mono-Blue Devotion react? Siding in cards like Domestication seems foolish when it's a waste of cardboard in games where I don't have exactly Nightveil Specter. Yet a single Nightveil Specter can blank a lot of their cards and threaten to take over the game. Frequently what happens is that a Nightveil Specter forces them to overextend into a blowout Supreme Verdict.
Does your U/W Control opponent have to leave in Supreme Verdict or cards like Last Breath against you so that they don't just get run over by Nightveil Specter? Good luck beating Jace, Elspeth, Thoughtseize, and Aetherling!
Ultimately Nightveil Specter is a huge threat against a lot of decks, but it attacks those decks on a completely different axis than the rest of the Esper deck does. There are very few cards that are good against both Nightveil Specter and Sphinx's Revelation, with Thoughtseize really being the defining one. Even then having a threat-dense deck with a lot of scry lands is also an exceptional way to fight Thoughtseize.
I had a post-board game against Mono-Black Devotion where I killed my opponent on turn 5. My opponent had turn 1 Thoughtseize, stripping my Thoughtseize. It was followed up by a turn 2 Thoughtseize and Duress, taking my Blood Baron and Supreme Verdict. On turn 3, my opponent played Underworld Connections, and turn 4 was Erebos, God of the Dead. It was actually one of the best possible starts a Mono-Black Devotion deck could envision against Esper. Triple discard spell, all hitting gas, followed by the two best possible threats in the matchup in Connections and Erebos.
I played Nightveil Specter on turn 3, Nightveil Specter on turn 4, and my opponent's Gray Merchant of Asphodel on turn 5. Coupled with an Underworld Connections and Erebos activation, it was a clean 21 points of damage. Nice deck. My only regret is that I didn't also gain eight life. Can't have it all.
Decks like Esper win a lot of game 1s because the opponent is going to have a lot of weak cards like Pharika's Cure, Doom Blade, and Mizzium Mortars in their deck. However, most opponents have a robust sideboard strategy against a deck like Esper. They know what to expect, and they know what's going to be good against a control deck in a post-board game. Therefore, it's quite important to be able to swing things back in your favor post-board when playing Esper.
The Nightveil Specter plan offers one such angle against decks like Mono-Black, Mono-Blue, and other control decks, but how do we combat a deck like G/R Monsters?
Personally, I like to turn to a card that's pretty weak generally speaking but is very good at handling very specific problems. Pretty much the only way the Monster deck is going to win is with planeswalkers. Mistcutter Hydra and Stormbreath Dragon are not very good against Doom Blades, and most of the time you will lose to a Domri Rade that went unchecked or a rogue Xenagos a lot more easily than a 4/4 for five.
That's where Pithing Needle comes in. In general, Pithing Needle is a bad card. You're spending a card to reactively answer another card, and sometimes a Pithing Needle doesn't even fully answer the card. You can Pithing Needle Pack Rat, but it's still possible to lose to a 2/2 or 3/3 Pack Rat backed up by Mutavaults or other copies of the card.
However, Pithing Needle is actually just one of the best answers in the format to planeswalkers. You can play a Pithing Needle proactively and proceed to blank not just one but every single copy of that planeswalker they draw for the rest of the game. An early Needle on Domri or Xenagos can put them in a position where they are forced to beat you with creatures, those ungodly things. I think we know how well that will likely go for them.
Normally, I don't like to provide sideboarding guides. For one, half the time I just kind of sideboard on the fly based on what I see from my opponent's deck. Secondly, I think blind adherence to a sideboarding guide is lazy Magic and also simply wrong. Frequently, I will spend a lot of come coming up with a neat sideboarding guide and then realize midway through a real match that my sideboard guide is completely wrong. Maybe my opponent boarded differently than I expected, or perhaps I simply poorly evaluated the value of various cards in the matchup. It's an extremely important skill to think critically on the spot about what to side in and out and make changes based on what you see, not what you or someone else wrote down a week ago.
With that being said, Standard is fairly straightforward right now. I'm not saying that Standard is easy, or skill-less, or anything along those lines. Far from it actually. What I'm suggesting is that the best decks are fairly known quantities and they aren't changing much from week to week. That means you can fairly confidently anticipate what you are going to see from each deck and have a plan to beat it.
If they have Ajani, Caller of the Pride, bring in a second Pithing Needle and cut another Sphinx's Revelation. I'm not sure that cutting Elspeth is right against them, but she gets blanked by Brave the Elements. And they really can't beat Blood Baron of Vizkopa, so I think it's a fine strategy to just rely on the Baron to finish the job.
I know this isn't really a traditional Esper list. A very common reaction I get is for people to take this list and immediately just try to morph it into a normal Esper list, with cards like Syncopate, Azorius Charm, Divination and the like. Personally, that's not really my game. But on a level deeper than how I personally feel, I also think that's a mistake. I think this deck is good. Quite good even. I wouldn't be writing about it if I felt otherwise.
I don't think traditional Esper lists are very good right now. I think if they were that we would see them at the top tables of tournaments because people like playing those decks. What separates this list from those decks are cards like Blood Baron of Vizkopa, a heavy commitment to Elspeth, and the sideboard plan with Nightveil Specter and other creatures.
If that's something up your alley or something that you might be interested in, I recommend giving the list a shot straight-up as is without trying to alter the deck to be more like a "normal" Esper list. I have had a lot of success with this deck, and I think it's in a fantastic position to perform in this format.
If nothing else, I'll be battling with it in a PTQ this weekend. My window of opportunity to "bring sexy back" has long elapsed, so I'm aiming to do the next best thing.
I'm looking to bring that blue envelop back.