After countless hours of Throne of Eldraine Standard testing, I needed a bit of a break. I wish I could say Standard is in a good place, but we all know the grim reality it exists in today. There are so many great ideas floating around, so many interesting brews that could flourish, and the looming emergency ban could set the stage for that healthy format it could be. I wrote a long-winded article last week on this topic and I hope you all had a chance to look at it. Join the conversation on social media and help influence the decision-makers by having your voice heard.
When I mentioned I needed a break, it is simply referring to a format switch. I haven't taken a real break from the game in recent history and I do not plan to. With the release of the Season One schedule of the 2020 SCG Tour®, I am all-in on returning to glory. I've been enjoying events from my employer ever since they were held in a shack in Roanoke and some of my fondest Magic memories come from those tournaments. To climb back to the top, I must spend a little more time on Modern, which is the format of choice for most of the SCG Tour® events I plan on attending next year.
At this point in my Modern testing, I have really enjoyed playing Urza Outcome. It's the closest thing to Ironworks there is in the format and it's close to it in power level. I still think it's the best deck and I probably should stick with it for upcoming events, but there is one Kor Artificer who keeps calling, tempting me from the sidelines.
This is my Esper Stoneblade list I posted not too long ago, and it has undergone some changes in the last week to defeat a few of the top decks that have solidified their position in the metagame. The reason I'm starting with this old list is to give you all a window into the control deckbuilder's mind, to see what kind of changes must take place for it to tango with a deck that is relatively immune to traditional hate.
In the old days, I would slam a Stony Silence and Rest in Peace to make winning impossible for my artifact-based combo opponent. It was a simpler time, where control had all the tools necessary for defeating these style decks in a convincing fashion. Azorius Control was strong against Ironworks and suffered in Modern to a multitude of other foes. Decks that Stony Silence and Rest in Peace were good against were an easy hurdle for control to leap over. When those enchantments become less effective, I had to adapt.
Why Not Azorius?
A traditional Azorius Stoneblade deck (or Azorius Control for that matter) has a very difficult time against a metagame filled with Amulet Titan, Urza Ascendancy, Urza Outcome, and Gifts Storm. These decks are very resilient to the basic removal package that Azorius Control brings, forcing control players to get much more creative. Path to Exile is a great removal spell, but it often gets overwhelmed as it is the only early answer to threats. Even when it's used effectively, the additional land opponents receive can end the game before it really gets started.
There's no worse feeling than casting Path to Exile on a Sakura-Tribe Scout, but it must be done. I stubbornly opted out of doing it a few times and it was rarely correct to do so. There are specific games that I can trace my exact moment of loss to, some of which follow the previously mentioned formula. The same can be said for cards like Dark Confidant or Stoneforge Mystic, both of which cannot be left alive on Turn 2. There are many more examples of the pain that Path to Exile has caused in the early game from the control side; however, I'm here to provide solutions.
If you're a two-color control loyalist, Oust is the easy addition to that removal package. That said, I went outside the box with this one, dipping into black for some removal backup. There is no better early-game removal spell than Fatal Push, as it answers the most threatening creatures with little drawback. There are only a few matchups in Modern where it is ineffective – Mono-Green Tron, for example – and it's a lifesaver against the rest. I enjoy a little guilt-free removal in my control decks, especially ones that can take down creatures from Turn 1 to Turn 4.
Fatal Push is great, but it is not the only reason that the black splash is warranted for control players today. The hand disruption piece is a requirement for a format dominated by speed. In a perfect world, we just nail the opponent's first play with a Spell Snare, drop a Stoneforge Mystic, deal with their follow-up play with a little removal, and proceed to win the game with Force of Negation backup. That line of play is simply not in the cards with Urza, Lord High Artificer running the streets. Whatever flavor of artifacts you enjoy, it is the undisputed captain of the team. Unless some drastic bannings take place soon, get ready for a permanent metagame with it at the top. Therefore, Thoughtseize is critical.
As you see in the initial launch of Esper Stoneblade, I already knew Urza, Lord High Artificer was the threat to defeat when building a Modern control deck. For this reason, Inquisition of Kozilek isn't even in the conversation. Thoughtseize is an absolute requirement for the maindeck, as a four-of, and the consequence is that we must take our lumps from Burn. Burn is already a polarized Game 1 matchup, coming down to the defense of Batterskull. Having Inquisition of Kozilek would help, but it isn't unwinnable without it. Against the rest of the field, Thoughtseize is king.
In the spirit of proactivity, Drown in the Loch was a fun experiment for me this last week. I added it to the previous list without testing it and was skeptical of its capabilities. Although it is a bit embarrassing against Mono-Green Tron, it has outperformed generic counterspells in other matchups. Esper Stoneblade taps out too often, making cards like Logic Knot and Mana Leak much more difficult to deploy. Drown in the Loch can assist as a smooth counterspell in the mid- and late-game, while having text in the early-game against some decks.
There are still a ton of aggressive strategies being used by Modern fans, so cards like Drown in the Loch have a place. Killing a Death's Shadow or an Inkmoth Nexus, countering a Snapcaster Mage, and even providing defense against a combo death are all attributes that draw me closer to this interesting card. I do not think playing more than two is wise, since it can be clunky when always staring at you in the opening hand. Drown in the Loch, Thoughtseize, and Fatal Push are all nice against decks using Urza, Lord High Artificer and continue to influence my deckbuilding choices.
The final black additions in the maindeck are Lingering Souls and Kaya's Guile, both of which serve a similar purpose. Providing additional bodies to pressure opponents that have dealt with Stoneforge Mystic is vital, as Spirits love to pick up a dropped Sword of Feast and Famine. Lingering Souls is much better against the grindier decks like Jund, whereas Kaya's Guile gives up some of that power to provide flexibility. After extensive games with both circulating, I can confidently say that Kaya's Guile is the better of the two cards.
Neither would be a possibility in an Azorius Control build, which then uses Vendilion Clique or Spell Queller to fill that spot. Both are fine cards; however, they do not help advance the control battlefield control like Kaya's Guile has. When on the offensive, the flash creatures do the job best, but often the flexibility of Kaya's Guile wins out.
Gaining four life Game 1 is huge and very underrated. It's one of the ways I have been able to beat Burn outside of the Batterskull protection model and a way to get out of reach of decks like Dredge easily. The other modes have been used frequently, all being valid against multiple decks in Modern. It took a while for me to appreciate having the ability to take out a graveyard or forcing my Selesnya Hexproof opponent to sacrifice their giant creature without having to sideboard first. Although neither Lingering Souls nor Kaya's Guile is great against decks with Urza, Lord High Artificer, Kaya's Guile is easily the preferred option.
This is my updated list, with some minor tweaks to address the most problematic matchups. I added an additional Opt and one Teferi, Time Raveler over the two Lingering Souls that were there prior. This may not seem like breakthrough technology against decks with Urza, but looks can be deceiving. The additional consistency brought by both spells adds up and that's only the first layer. The fact that they are both blue cards that replaced white cards has been huge for me in testing.
Force of Negation saves us in a world of unfair Magic, providing the control user powerful answers to spells while tapped out. In the early-game, we must tap out to enlist pressure or we don't have a shot against the big mana and combo decks out there. Force of Negation has been our agent of success in this endeavor. There's a world where Drown in the Loch becomes so powerful for me that Thought Scour replaces Opt, but we aren't there yet. At this point, Opt is a strong vessel to hit a Turn 2 Stoneforge Mystic more consistently.
The rest of the maindeck didn't change, but there were some sideboard shifts that led me to success against Mox Opal and Urza's Tower. Disdainful Stroke is one of the cleanest answers to medium-sized creatures and spells, so it is now a two-of. It replaced Dovin's Veto, which has become a bit more obsolete with having four Force of Negation and two Drown in the Loch in the maindeck. There are so many matchups where Disdainful Stroke yields the best possible returns now, much different from how it was months ago.
The final change involves cranking up the heat on artifacts by adding a third Stony Silence to the team. Rest in Peace can't save us against the big mana and artifact-based terrors that roam Tier 1 today. Surgical Extraction has proved to be the superior spell, even though it is much less effective against Dredge. Dredge is the only matchup where I'm truly feeling the loss of Rest in Peace; however, I'm still beating it with a Batterskull backed up by counterspells. This, plus having access to Kaya's Guile, has made this sideboard configuration a solid one for me. Having a third Stony Silence has swung the matchup against Urza Outcome, Four-Color Whirza, and Urza Ascendancy in my favor.
Although those decks are in the running for the number-one title, Esper Stoneblade, built correctly, can take them down with relative ease.