Competitive Magic can take quite the emotional toll on even the strongest mage. For many of us, we put our heart and soul into this game. This could be through content creation, judging, pure competitive play, or simply allowing Magic to be one's hobby of choice, one that commandeers all free time. The reason why Magic has lasted so long and has been as successful as it's been is us. We are what make the game great, and the family continues to grow as Magic's popularity booms each year.
Star City Games® is the reason you all see me today. I used to drive to Roanoke and play at the small Star City Games® shack that hosted a variety of Grand Prix Trials and Pro Tour Qualifiers. On one visit over a decade ago, I informally announced my retirement to Ben Bleiweiss, one of the two bosses that ran the joint. I called it quits due to the stress of playing all these qualifier tournaments and falling short repeatedly. I'm sure many of you can relate to this grind and still see yourself chasing that competitive dream today. If you feel the way I did, keep at it, because I had to eat crow when Ben saw me a few months later after I qualified for Pro Tour Philadelphia in 2005. This achievement reinvigorated me, producing the drive to create content through brews with a focus on control.
Shortly after playing on the Pro Tour, I did well in a few local tournaments, as well as making a name for myself on the Star City Games® circuit, then called the "Dual for Duals." A little success with Star City Games, a state championship, and a couple Pro Tours with a unique, tap-out take on control in all formats was my brand that caught the attention of a writer at The Mothership named Mike Flores. He had a weekly column called "Swimming with Sharks" and wrote a few pieces on me from time to time. This notoriety eventually caught the editor's eye here at Star City Games®, Ted Knutson, and he brought me onto the Premium side as a pusher of control and controversy. The rest, my friends, is history.
Magic has endless opportunities now that it didn't have before. Players have developed followings through streaming, developing content from a plethora of websites, self-branding with personal blogs, cosplay, journeyman judging, Magic tutelage, tournament finishes (local and larger), and I've even seen a wave of players mount a following for just being good people, fighting for those less privileged and pushing Magic to be more inclusive on all fronts. Magic is far more than a game to millions of people worldwide, and the passion is easily seen through the social media platforms that we all use regularly.
This is how I have seen Magic for the last twenty years. From my local game store and my Green Stompy deck, to a world traveler that has mastered expensive sorceries. At the youthful age of 35, my resolve has not weakened. I will continue to play and create content for you all, the control enthusiasts, as well as the aggro spies that lurk in my articles to get our secrets. I am, however, planning on shifting gears fully to the SCG Tour in lieu of Magic Fests.
I did not make this decision lightly. Playing on the Pro Tour has been amazing, and I plan on playing in a few tournaments here or there to not retire fully from them next year. I have Cleveland and London left in the bank, so even this shift is for later this year. I cannot ignore the issues that exist in Grand Prix tournaments any longer, especially with how amazing the SCG Tour® events have been. Last weekend in New Jersey was the tip of the iceberg, showing us a complete abandon ship strategy that Organized Play has implemented in their marquee tournament series.
Going into the last draft, I had to best Oliver Tiu, Sam Black, and Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa in order to make the Top 8 at 13-2. Limited has been a weakness of mine as of late because I spent the lion's share of my time on Constructed. Just like most competitive players with life obligations, I must ration my time toward the formats that are supported in the tournaments I'm most likely to play in. With a few MTG Arena drafts under my belt, I found myself needing to 3-0 one of the toughest pods I've ever been in to get that extra invite and likely qualify for the rest of the Pro Tours this season.
After drafting a lovely Rakdos Aggro deck, I saw my pairing against Sam Black in the first round. Not an easy way to start, but he had a slower control deck that couldn't handle the aggro rush and was defeated 2-0. This was a feature match with no text coverage and not even a mention on Twitter. I figure that when some household names clash, someone out there may want to get behind the ring and root one of them on. After Sam, I defeated my Simic opponent in a hard-fought match that went to game 3. There was only one round left to win and just a Hall of Fame player standing in my way to a weekend that would be one of the most memorable of my Magic career.
Paulo and I have known each other for a very long time. He's one of the best ambassadors of the game, and I had hoped to show the world that I could still go toe to toe with a player of his caliber. As our names are called to a dark side of the event hall with a small handful of people watching, I became a little disenchanted with what has happened to the Grand Prix allure that was once there for many of us. There was no photographer, writer, cameras, or even an employee that could tweet out results. It was a Hall of Famer and myself, playing one of the most epic matches of Limited that I've ever experienced.
Game 1 was a blowout, PV went down to six cards, missed two land drops, and was run over. The other two games were so fantastic that a noble observer had to report what occurred:
@PVDDR with a crazy draw against @shaheenmtg in game 2 of round 15 at #MagicFestNJ. Shaheen plays Captive Audience, passes, Paulo discards his hand of two lands, draws Flames of the Raze-Boar, and wins on the next turn after using it to clear five zombies and two other creatures.— Richard Neal (@rwn231) January 27, 2019
This tweet refers to what happened game 2, where I believe Paulo one-outers me the turn before he dies to Captive Audience. Before I resolved one of the sweetest enchantments ever, I was setting him up to make it a clean 2-0 victory. Trading creatures, looking weak, keeping both life totals high, and preparing for the seven-mana bomb to end the game in three turns. In a casual attack from Paulo, he sends in a 5/5, 3/3, and a 3/4. I have a 3/2 and a 2/1 on the battlefield with a simple decision to make. I end up making what I thought was an optimal block, knocking out the 3/3 with my 3/2, my life total moved for the first time to twelve, and slammed Captive Audience the next turn. That block ended up giving him the one out to take down the Esper Professor.
He started off by discarding his hand, thought long and hard for the next trigger the following turn, gave me five Zombies, then peeled Flames of the Raze-Boar to floor me and all the viewers. Sadly, there were about five viewers, and no one else was informed of this epic game between two grizzled veterans of the game. I ended up losing another close game in the final showdown, knocking me out and hitting me with a large emotional tax on my long drive home. The bar for success that we create for ourselves in life can be unfair. In Magic, WotC fans the flames of this issue, moving closer to a winner take all system. The Magic Pro League and its top 32 members are deservingly reaping the benefits of the system, but the rest of the pros that you all follow are left with the scraps. This has never been the case with Star City Games®.
I came back to the SCG Tour® a few months ago for a random Legacy Open in Baltimore and made the top 4. I felt like a superstar, showcased on screen, background information by the commentators, the entire room buzzing with social media updates and excitement, and a general desire to cultivate competitor brands from management. The vibe difference is night and day. As I look at my event schedule, I can't help but smile when thinking about my upcoming SCG Tour® appearances in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Roanoke. Speaking of Baltimore, let's spend the end of this article addressing the expected metagame for the Standard portion. Afterall, I'm still the Spike that you all have come to know so well over the years.
- 2 Carnage Tyrant
- 3 Hydroid Krasis
- 4 Jadelight Ranger
- 4 Llanowar Elves
- 4 Merfolk Branchwalker
- 2 Midnight Reaper
- 2 Ravenous Chupacabra
- 1 Seekers' Squire
- 4 Wildgrowth Walker
Here's the deck to beat if you're playing the Standard portion of Baltimore this week. Lucky for you, Esper Control is very strong against these midrange decks in Ravnica Allegiance Standard. The addition of Hydroid Krasis may concern some, but the flow of Esper Control prevents Sultai Midrange from amassing a critical mass of resources to pump out giant flying creatures, making the card advantage produced from them manageable. The first game ends with their hand being torn apart, key spells countered, and Kaya's Wrath easily cleaning up the riff raff. Maindeck copies of Negate brick Vivien Reid and Find, while the other counterspells keep us flexible to other threats.
Carnage Tyrant used to be the card we all feared from team control, but not as much these days. Every Esper Control list I have tested uses four Thought Erasure and four Kaya's Wrath, giving me plenty of ways to prevent the Dinosaur from running amok. Game 1 comes to us easily, but the sideboarded games can be tough. They have tainted our precious blue, using Negate to push through their Golgari agenda. This is typically dangerous for control players, but our sideboarding strategy is a bit different. I have recently brought in a few copies of Thief of Sanity, knowing that they sideboard out all their copies of Cast Down and Ravenous Chupacabra. Sultai Midrange pilots still lean on Vivien Reid and Vraska's Contempt, but those have a mana cost that can be exploited with cheaper threats. Overall, the matchup is much better for Esper Control than it was for Jeskai Control last season, making it a good choice for the weekend.
- 20 Mountain
Mono-Red Aggro has been a surprisingly easy matchup for Esper Control. I have been dumbfounded regarding the impact Absorb has had on winning against burn strategies. It sounds like a common sense realization, but the three-mana counterspell with Healing Salve attached didn't look like it would be enough to sway the matchup so heavily. Absorb has single-handedly turned the red tide in our favor while having minimal negative issues other matchups. Sinister Sabotage is still a better choice in a world without Skewer the Critics, but Absorb has officially stolen the crown in the three-mana slot.
- 4 Basilica Bell-Haunt
- 4 Deputy of Detention
- 4 Hero of Precinct One
- 2 Hostage Taker
- 3 Seraph of the Scales
- 3 Thief of Sanity
- 2 Lyra Dawnbringer
Other aggressive decks are easy to beat as well, but this Esper Midrange deck is a quite difficult matchup. The stress that Negate gives me from Sultai Midrange is nothing compared to here, adding in maindeck copies of Thought Erasure, Disdainful Stroke, Duress, additional planeswalkers, and creatures that completely obliterate any Esper Control mage if left unchecked. Thief of Sanity, Hero of Precinct One, and Seraph of the Scales are very scary cards that require specific answers early on. Usually that isn't an issue, but Thought Erasure makes it more difficult this time around.
Hero of Precinct One is a harmless friend of ours on turn 2, as we laugh at the tokens created before we hit them with a well-timed Kaya's Wrath. That was our plan, but Thought Erasure now takes our battlefield cleanser and we are frequently facing down an army without an answer. Thief of Sanity on its own is terrifying, but it gets much worse with a cast of control killers behind it. This is the tough matchup for the weekend that requires the tuned version of Esper that you'll see below. I made some concessions to burn in order to have better answers and a better sideboard, but it hasn't significantly affected my win rate against them so far.