I played Sultai Midrange at SCG Baltimore. The deck was great and I wanted to make people beat me and learn from it. But Sultai Midrange is far from my favorite thing to do in the format.
- Thought Erasure is the best Thoughtseize since, well, Thoughtseize
- Thought Erasure is the best card in every deck that plays it
- Thought Erasure might be the best card in Standard
One of the other strong contenders for best card in Standard is Hydroid Krasis. A lot of the discussion early this week was how to exploit it. Angrath, the Flame-Chained, Entrancing Melody, and Hostage Taker were all brought up and "we feel smart" pats on the back were had all around.
I've cast Hydroid Krasis into all the above "super answers," and in the end two things happen. The Krasis player remains close to card parity if not ahead, and the opponent was forced down a reactive longer path against the pile of two-for-ones deck. If you don't draw Hydroid Krasis, only Hostage Taker of those cards is actually great against Sultai Midrange. Angrath, the Flame-Chained is fine but partly winmore, and Entrancing Melody is just beyond awkward.
Thought Erasure forces the Hydroid Krasis player down your path from the start of the game. You can plot out the game as fast or slow as your other cards want. And it isn't just good versus Hydroid Krasis. It handles all the other immediate value threats in the exact same way, most importantly Vivien Reid and Find (even if the best mode of Find is recurring Hydroid Krasis).
The other important threat category in Standard is the hard to answer one. There's a lot of strain selecting how many Vraska's Contempt, Mortify, and Consume you want to filter into relatively few slots. Too few specific answers and you just die to some weird card, too many and Sultai just runs you over with raw cardboard gained on each trade.
If a Grixis deck is going to succeed in Standard, Thought Erasure is going to be a big part of it. One of the traditional Grixis issues is an inability to answer enchantments, and there are a large number of those in the format. You can only play so many Negates against these red decks, and you can't afford to tap out for a Crackling Drake for a long time if you need to protect against their best end game.
One of the normal issues with discard spells is that it costs you mana but not them. This was part of why Grixis Death's Shadow fell out of favor against Humans in Modern: you would Thoughtseize, they would just play spells anyways and you would die.
Standard curves are not as resilient. Unless they have a second copy of their one on-curve card, Thought Erasure often forces them to just not play good Magic for a turn. They don't spend mana up front on the exchange, but because they don't get to spend mana effectively, you're virtually fine on tempo.
In a format of miserable to answer cards on every axis, Thought Erasure covers the field.
The biggest challenge for Esper Control is ensuring the mana works out. Not that the mana is bad and unreliable, but Magic can punish you just for trying. Sometimes you miss your fourth land or draw four Dimir sources and only one white source. Thought Erasure is there to help. It also has light synergy milling Chemister's Insight, if you play that card, though the games where you're going to cast a draw two but only want the jump-start half of the draw two are not normal.
Seriously, hands with Thought Erasure and without are night and day for Esper Control. If you cast it on turn 2, it feels like nothing can go wrong.
Or, to quote my pitch for this article, Esper Control is now a Thought Erasure deck, not a Teferi deck. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is just a means to an end, Kaya's Wrath is just one of many sweepers; Thought Erasure is the unique linchpin in getting the game to unfold your way.
Every removal spell in the Esper deck has some issue with Jadelight Ranger. Moment of Craving misses it as a 4/3, Mortify and Vraska's Contempt gain no tempo and lose explore value, the card is large enough to force action and bait Kaya's Wrath before you can also have your Absorb shields up. If you Thought Erasure it, none of that happens. They might even draw bad cards and give you a window to establish a win.
With Esper Control you can often get value from Thought Erasure going long thanks to the nature of your deck. Esper Control has few threats, but they are must-answer threats. This is especially true after you sideboard in Thief of Sanity. Your opponent will have some kill spells, and over a long game they will get stuck in their hand. Thought Erasure drawn late lines up as a preemptive counterspell for these, being cast right before you go for Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to clear the path.
- 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
On the other side of Esper spectrum is Esper Midrange, and this is literally the deck's entire strategy. Beating midrange opponents with Basilica Bell-Haunt is only technically possible. You win by sticking something that provides cascading advantage, namely Hero of Precinct One or Thief of Sanity.
Sticking a fragile creature? Sounds like a job for Thought Erasure. Extra points if that fragile creature is something that immediately starts churning out absolute value like these two Esper options.
Honestly, even if the threat isn't fragile Thought Erasure is great. If only a specific answer hits your threat, being able to take that out away is everything you want to do.
- 20 Island
Thought Erasure is much better backing up Niv-Mizzet, Parun than Dive Down because seven mana for Niv with protection is way more than six mana because seven cards spent on lands is way more than six. It's way better to preemptively Thought Erasure, take their relevant removal, and surveil into your sixth land.
Dive Down is way better with Pteramander because two mana is not that much more than one. Well, it is, but Thought Erasure costs two mana anyways, and Standard is a format where raw power outweighs efficiency unlike older formats.
I think the turning point is dead center between Enigma Drake and Crackling Drake. If your deck is more Niv-Mizzet, Parun and Crackling Drake, you're trying to be a Thought Erasure deck. If your deck is more Pteramander, Enigma Drake, or Goblin Electromancer, you want to be a Dive Down deck. There might be some weird spot you want both, but then you start having weird mana issues like Sultai Midrange does to support Llanowar Elves.
On that note, a lot of people have asked about playing Thought Erasure in Sultai Midrange. I elected not to this weekend because I wanted to just stock list it up, but I think there's both merit to it and issues it causes.
The biggest upside comes from the increased answer diversity. Sultai has good threats, but they are largely raw value threats and not hard to answer or cascading advantage ones like Thought Erasure is best with. Where Sultai gets the most value from Thought Erasure is coverage against alternate threats from a number of decks. Duress is good, but it doesn't hit Thief of Sanity from Esper Control sideboards or Niv-Mizzet, Parun or Hydroid Krasis from Wilderness Reclamation decks. Having a discard spell that can hit their main noncreature components but also cover whatever sideboard nonsense people cooked up this week is really absurd.
One of the weird parts of Thought Erasure is that people aren't really taking extra advantage of the surveil part of the card more than they would a scry. Cards go to your graveyard, isn't that worth something? There's even like seven cards that do something with surveil!
The issue with graveyard synergy is related to the same issue a million other similar cards have in the format. You can play some cool enable-y cheap spell that filters cards, or you can play a cool enable-y cheap spell that filters cards with power and toughness because it's just an explore creature. If both players do this, your opponent is just always the beat down and you're always the control. If you're Esper Control with Kaya's Wrath, that's fine. Or at least its fine until they also have discard and counterspells and all their stupid game 1 threats too.
If you're some Izzet Drakes deck, your life is miserable, hence why it took so long to iterate and find the right build of that deck in Guilds of Ravnica Standard. There might be some deck that does cool graveyard stuff that uses Thought Erasure to dig to it, but if you want to go down that road, expect to slam your head into the Sultai wall for a long time figuring it out.
What about being an active surveil deck? The payoff is really just Disinformation Campaign, which is reasonable, but wow are the next four or eight surveil cards not good. Discovery is everything wrong in the Merfolk Branchwalker comparison. Lazav, the Multifarious is kinda okay, I guess? I would rather have multiple power or immediate effects on my two-drops. Doom Whisperer is basically out of the question because five-mana 6/6 flier that Vampiric Tutors is not a synergy card, it's a just "go kill them" card. Once you start getting to Sinister Sabotage you start wondering why you aren't just playing normal cards that gain three life like Absorb or whatever. Absorb even makes a 1/1 with Hero of Precinct One!
Having some incidental upside with Thought Erasure is nice, but I wouldn't worry too much about using it on levels beyond just making them discard cards and hit land drops.
Why Didn't I Play Thought Erasure?
In the end I still didn't play Esper of any variety at #SCGBALT. And I'm not trying to cover secret Pro Tour technology. I played stupid Sultai Midrange with no technology beyond putting the same old Plaguecrafters in my sideboard.
- I beat Seth Manfield who played Esper Control. I beat Edgar Magalhaes who played Esper Control. I won a game after getting hit by Esper's Thief of Sanity three times.
- It turns out if every card in your deck is a two-for-one, the math is eventually in your favor.
- It turns out if every card in your deck is a stupid two-for-one, taking one with Thought Erasure doesn't matter.
Even if Thought Erasure is the best card in Standard, it still has all the same failings as Thoughtseize did when it was good. If every card in your opponent's deck is a similar level and type of threatening, taking one specific one just doesn't matter that much.
So there I was. I wasn't sure I could beat my Sultai Midrange opponents with Esper Control, so I just made them try to beat me and see what I was doing wrong. They all failed, but it wasn't Thought Erasure's fault. If all their cards were Thought Erasure they might have actually won, but instead they had Thought Erasure for one card and died because they had to Mortify the next three.
Of course, half the Top 8 was playing Esper Control, and half the bottom part of Day 2 was Sultai Midrange.
Maybe I was wrong the whole time.
Or maybe I was right? The Standard Classic was also won by Sultai, and Esper Control was not nearly as big of a top end presence there.
At the least, I'm going to spend another week trying to beat people with Thought Erasure. And I'm probably succeeding when I draw the card and cast it on turn 2.