Last week I called the winner of the SCG Standard Open at Worcester before the tournament even began. As the coverage started I said to my co-commentator Zack Hall that Esper Control was going to win the whole shebang. In the end Esper won handily crushing a ton of Delver decks along the way(champion Jeremy Dombek shared his account here).
The week before I was working with Rob Dougherty and company at Origins when I popped by the coverage of SCG Open Series: Columbus around round 3 of Standard. "What do you think is going to win?" asked Joey Pasco.
"Esper Control" I said.
It wasn't that Esper was clearly the best deck. That distinction belongs to Delver variants. But it seemed to me that Esper-based control decks were the ones that had gotten the most development of all of the popular blue control decks. Someone I imagined was going to take a well-positioned Esper deck and go all of the way with it.
A part of the reason I thought this was the work of Gerry Thompson (et al.). When we say that GerryT broke the format it isn't that he was the only one to develop a Restoration Angel-based build of Delver. Many people had this deck at GP Minneapolis. The difference was that Gerry's deck was honed. And importantly it was proven in the fires of the SCG Standard Open in Nashville with the astounding finish that Team SCG Blue had with the deck.
Last week I covered the ways that Delver has begun to develop in this post-GerryT world but the thing to remember is something that Adam Prosak said that weekend in Nashville: "Now we have something with a target on it. Before we talk about banning anything let's see what happens."
So what has happened? It is hard to look to the SCG Invitational for exact answers because as a mixed format we aren't simply looking at the performance of Delver. (Note: this is written before the Sunday results.)
The SCG Open itself in Indy actually is single format. All Standard all ten rounds. And shockingly eight different archetypes in Top 8.
What is this? Legacy several months ago?!
So maybe we can't use the multi-format SCG Invitational to see how the format is playing out. That said the Standard decks in the Top 8 are as follows:
Not exactly promising. But I have a prediction:
In the more diverse SCG Open event the sole Esper deck was eliminated by an aggressive Naya Pod deck. This can definitely happen; the Esper deck wasn't facing off against its preferred enemy and Naya Pod can simply get those aggressive draws combined with that alternate path to victory in Birthing Pod that can make it quite difficult for a more controlling deck to take a comfortable path to victory.
What is it about Esper Control that is taking advantage of these Delver decks? What's going on?
Theory Crafting Towards Understanding
I've often talked about the value of theory in Magic and it is something that I ardently believe in. A big part of it is the predictive value of theory. A theory is good if it can help you describe things and if it can help you make predictions.
One of the most important things about proper Magic theory is that it helps you make good predictions. Take the concept of card advantage: it helps you understand how to measure resources and understanding it gives you a sense of what is being exchanged for another resource. If you understand why card advantage is important you can evaluate why one pick in a draft is better than another or why one play might matter more than another. But it isn't the only way to understand what is happening with a game of Magic. I was really grateful to Patrick Chapin for including references to me in his work on theory for his excellent Next Level Magic book because I spent a lot of time thinking debating being convinced of others' ideas and doing some convincing of my own with regards to Magic theory. But it's only useful as theory if you can make predictions.
Here is one use of Magic theory you can take to the bank: there is no matchup between strategic archetypes* as lopsided as aggro-control versus control. Control is on average going to take it on the chin. Badly.
I still remember a match I had a long time ago at a US Nationals. I was playing a mono-blue control deck with Thieving Magpies (Chevy Blue for you old school folk) and my opponent Alex Borteh played a first turn Merfolk of the Pearl Trident.
I knew immediately I was going to lose. And I did.
A part of the problem for a control deck facing an aggro-control deck is that you are just naturally placed in a rough situation. The aggro-control deck does what it is designed to do: puts down the fast threat and then puts up just enough time-control (typically in the form of counters but occasionally otherwise as well) to stop the control deck's answers when it matters. A control deck against a normal aggro deck would be able to leverage answers to the board and card advantage and can set up a fight of threats and answers where one deck or the other will emerge victorious depending on the strength of their particular pieces. An aggro-control deck on the other hand has just the right combination of cards to make this fight an unlikely proposition. The control deck might actually be able to pull it off if it had the time but time is precisely what the aggro-control deck is prepared to fight over.
So why did I predict that Esper would be well positioned for Columbus and Worcester and why do I think it is likely (even if it doesn't happen) that Shaheen Soorani will win the SCG Invitational?
A huge part of it is the way that the Delver decks are positioning themselves. They are moving more and more away from the aggro-control space and drifting all the way over into the slower mixed strategies (hybrid control) and almost becoming true midrange decks (like Sam Black's Delverless Delver has become).
It's not that these decks can't get aggro-control draws. Any deck can have strategic moments where it behaves like a specific strategic archetype but this does not mean that they are that archetype. Strategic archetypes bleed into each other. GerryT's Delver deck the new king of the castle was precisely the king in Nashville because it was prepared to slow down. In Delver-on-Delver you can win with the fast beatdown draw but the other deck is usually prepared to slow things down with a combination of Snags and Gut Shots backed up by Snapcasters such that the fight takes on a slow slog. Gerry's belief—which seems bourn out by the results—is that taking the fight and making it a slower one is the key to victory.
The problem of course is that this loses the deck some of the positioning that it has as an aggro-control deck and opens the door for control decks to be able to push back. As an aside this is why I don't like Sam Black's Midrange U/W deck because even though the deck is very well situated for an unhoned meta against Delver decks it gives up some of the free wins that the Delver deck can claim. Gerry's deck (and slightly slower Delver decks) can occupy most of the same strategic space that Sam's deck does and still be ever so barely on the fringe of being an aggro-control deck that even just simply getting a pure aggro-control draw is enough to take home a victory.
At the same time as good as it is against other Delver lists it does become weaker against a control deck that is well situated for the matchup. Whereas the most aggressive lists of Delver (running Invisible Stalkers Pikes and perhaps more equipment) would shrug off most Esper control lists these lists pose a real problem for the slower Delver.
Going Through Control Decks
Let's look at some recent control decks and give them a brief deck doctoring with an eye for understanding that this is still a Delver world but other decks exist too. Obviously these decks have had greater or lesser amounts of success at this point but that doesn't mean that they can't be improved. Take Charles Gindy's winning PT Hollywood Elves list as an example; I'm pretty sure that his deck was a few cards off but regardless of that the essential concepts of the deck were so strong as to be irresistible and the deck choice at large was a great one for that event. Sometimes what a deck does is so good that even being a touch off doesn't matter. A good illustration of that is this deck:
Here is the champion's list from Worcester. Jeremy was quick to claim that the Tamiyo in the maindeck were a mistake.
The basic keys to what sets up this archetype as a solid one against Delver can be summed up as follows:
Sweep (Day of Judgment / Ratchet Bomb / Elesh Norn Grand Cenobite)
Point Removal (Black spells and Oblivion Ring)
Powerful Top End (Sun Titan + Phantasmal Image / Gideon Jura / Elesh Norn)
One of my favorite things about Jeremy's deck is that he has zero Think Twice a card that I think is basically terrible even in a deck that runs Miracles. I'm not excited about three Mana Leak but I can understand the rationale.
This would give room for one more card to the board dependent on the metagame you expect.
Here is Shaheen Soorani's deck who I predict will win the SCG Invitational.
I basically really like this deck and Shaheen definitely has his eye on the ball with this deck. That said there are a few small things I don't like.
I just see no reason to be running this card right now. This deck is not keeping mana open for countermagic and even if it were I still don't like Think Twice.
I used to like Think Twice when you could expect that there were going to be a lot of counter-control/counter-control fights. There the grind mattered. But even then I didn't like it much; there were just so few places that you were fighting for advantage that every little bit mattered. This is not that time.
As it is you are spending five mana for two cards at which point I'd rather be getting the heavy hitter Blue Sun's Zenith. Yes you can spend only two mana once and then spend the three mana later but in my experience even in a deck with a ton of Miracles this just isn't worth it in Standard because the aggressive decks are either pure aggro decks that you need to answer quickly and just get your card advantage later when you're ready or they are aggro-control decks and that time can cost you a win.
I still think Shaheen is advantaged in those latter matchups but I do think that Think Twice is unnecessarily slow for too little impact.
I'm not sure about a few other cards (like Mortarpod) but I'm going to trust Shaheen's deckbuilding here. Why that and not Think Twice? The big difference between the two is that cards like Mortarpod have a tangible impact on the board and game and are easier to test and come to conclusions about. Cards like Think Twice are innocuous and harder to evaluate properly. Having spent the greater part of the last eight months working on decks like this I'm going to go with my conclusions about Think Twice here since I've not seen any reasons yet to change them and I'll trust Shaheen on Mortarpod because I imagine he simply has more experience with the card than I do in this kind of deck. Shaheen is a very respectable deckbuilder so an odd choice like this is one I'll take with a grain of salt.
I would also normally get rid of a Tamiyo here because thus far in my experience Tamiyo is a really rough card to play against Restoration Angel. One thing that changes that equation is the combination of instant speed removal that Shaheen has and Despise. With these cards Tamiyo is far safer.
Divination though oft mocked is a completely solid card draw spell if you don't want to commit to playing something BIG like Blue Sun's Zenith. Normally I would consider a card like Forbidden Alchemy here but without a Reanimation package Divination just seems better. In my own U/W Control deck for the previous (pre-Avacyn Restored) Standard I ran two Divination and was very happy with them boasting an over 75% match-win percentage overall (based on over 100 Magic Online matches whose results I recorded) and with a slight matchup advantage versus all varieties of Delver (though greatly disadvantaged versus Runechanter's builds).
The Bomb maindeck is just to have a little more removal and to be versatile against other decks. This could potentially be something else instead. Personally I've liked one Karn but that is pretty high on the curve and Bomb is more conservative.
Let's verge into slightly wild territory with Caleb Durward's take on Grixis Control.
Wow there is a lot going on here to wrap your head round.
In testing for Pro Tour Avacyn Restored I spent a lot of time trying to work on numerous versions of Lone Revenant decks but I didn't really have the time to fully devote to the format. The concept of the deck as Caleb describes is really really real. Lone Revenant is hard to answer and it can just take the game over. But there are things I really don't like.
Think Twice once again. This format is simply too fast for it and even if you should chance into a Miracle it simply isn't worth taking the time. Too much can go wrong. As a corollary to this there are too many Desolate Lighthouse. Mana is a real concern and this deck should be playing better mana even if only slightly.
That many Mana Leak. Mana Leak is not particularly good if you aren't being quite aggressive. Four is wrong in any deck that is not running Snappy/Angel.
There are some other cards that I could see tweaking but overall I actually like the look of this deck. I don't really believe in Temporal Mastery and don't think they are actually good enough to play but given that this seems to be a cornerstone of what the deck is trying to do I'm going to leave them alone.
Here are the changes:
This very much looks like a deck that can benefit from a little life gain. Without Think Twice the deck is going to be looking for a little more mana and without a few Leak it could certainly lose some life here and there. Pristine Talisman does a lot here to give it that. In addition Pristine Talisman often acts like pseudo-removal particularly in a deck with sweep effects (even as tepid of ones like Whipflare). Talisman also adds more ways to get out the expensive spells (with the lone Negate helping this out as well).
The card advantage of the Think Twice has only been nodded at here with an extra Snapcaster and another Lone Revenant. With four Snapcaster Mage /Ponder as well as two Desolate Lighthouse I feel confident that you can get into more active card advantage cards without much effort.
The lone switch of Pillar of Flame to Red Sun's Zenith is a small nod to the way that Pillar seems to be used here as specifically an undying answer. RSZ does the same kind of work for marginally more mana but has the nice benefit of also being able to take out bigger creatures if need be. This change might be hasty and Pillar may need to come back in but for now I'd recommend testing one Red Sun's Zenith.
Adam Prosak's discussion of his deck is very illuminating and serves to really highlight the powers of hybridization. Prosak has long established himself as a versatile deckbuilder. Taking the stronger elements of Sam Black's U/W Midrange and going a step further to include the cards which make Esper Control decks like Solar Flare a reasonable choice Prosak takes the deck further into the land of control than Sam went to. Honestly I think this is the natural conclusion of such a deck.
Looking at the deck it was incredibly hard to find a card that I wanted to change. He doesn't even have the mistakes I normally see in this style of deck: huge amounts of Mana Leak or any number of Think Twice. A huge part of me wants to have four Restoration Angel but I'm not exactly sure how to fit them. One impulse is to cut a Blade Splicer or Dismember; nothing else seems worth considering. After a lot of thought though this seemed wrong on both counts. Maybe one of them should go for an Angel but I can't see which one if either particularly after listening to Prosak talk.
I'm curious to see what comes of the format in the coming weeks. If Wizards of the Coast decides to ban anything it is just around the corner. By the time this is published we'll likely know whether Shaheen Soorani is the champion of the SCG Invitational and we'll have the results of the Standard portion of the SCG Open. It could very well be that based on the data from those two events Wizards won't see fit to ban a single card.
Or maybe they will.
If they do right now I'm hoping that card is Ponder. Ponder is just so much glue that holds the Delver deck together to make it feel abusive. The real culprit of course isn't Ponder so much as it is Snapcaster Mage with the various support cards that make it so particularly good in Standard right now (Ponder / Gitaxian Probe / Thought Scour / Restoration Angel / Phantasmal Image / Vapor Snag / Gut Shot / (Mana Leak)). I just don't see Wizards banning Snapcaster for a number of reasons not the least of which is that it is the last Invitational card (yay Tiago!) and is really cool.
I'm curious what we'll see in the days and weeks to come.
I hope you enjoyed this look at blue-based control decks. In the next day or two I will likely already have posted my current version of my own deck (straight blue-white control) on my Facebook page. I'm only thirteen matches in with it so far but it looks really promising going "100%" against Delver. I've only played against it three times so far but I'm sure that 100% will hold up for at least another few matches. ;)
Control players pay attention. This moment with Delver decks all carefully aiming their guns at each other may not last much longer. Take the opportunity to take advantage of it.
See you next week
I'm trying to make a habit of using my Facebook page as a place to let readers help steer the direction of my next column. Feel free to go there to join in and let me know what kind of articles you want to be seeing.
* Here is the modified Strategic Archetype Circle from my article Why Midrange Rules Today's Standard which briefly displays the ways the Strategic Archetypes work: