Esper: Esper Evolution – Spread the Sickness with Grant Hislop
Magic players are a strange bunch.
Most people would rather spout off other people’s ideas about a format than actually work out their own opinions. It’s easier to read an article and assume everything in it is fact rather than spend a long time mastering a deck, or getting your own handle on Standard. Far more important to some is to make sure they’ve got the perfect playmat sorted out to go with their copies of every single token that exists to ensure that they’re never ‘caught short’, and have plenty of time to waste during the round while they root through their backpacks, then their boxes for the perfect representation of a 1/1 that’s going to die immediately anyway.
Many people deal in absolutes: ‘Control is dead’ they say, expecting that everyone will agree with them because they read it in an article. ‘Well, if I read it in an article, then everyone else must have read it in an article too, making it correct’, they think, erroneously.
In Magic, as with life, the most powerful question we have access to is simply ‘Why?’ In my experience, I’ve found that people are more prepared to write decks off entirely than explore ways to make them continue to work.
This Standard season, due to a combination of work commitments, schedule conflicts and various personal issues, I only managed to attend four tournaments that would have qualified me for a Pro Tour, or equivalent. I finished 7th, 3rd, scrubbed out and finished with a 9th place on tiebreakers. That’s not the worst conversion rate of tournaments to Top 8’s I’ve ever seen, but it’s obviously somewhat disappointing to have not converted any of them into a slot.
I played Esper Control in each of these events.
The first tournament I played in was a WMCQ in at Highlander Games in Dundee. My deck was traditional, for the time – Pre-Dragon’s Maze, and played very well.
The decklist I ran was:-
Nothing particularly out of the ordinary here, and obviously heavily based on ChannelFireball’s Esper deck from the Pro Tour, as well as some decklists from MTGO Dailies.
I really liked the way this deck played, but I wanted to tune it for the meta that I expected. Traditionally, Scotland has something of an affinity for GW based aggressive decks, with less and less pull towards the ‘best deck in the format’ than we should. Consequently, I wanted to beat GWx, have game against Jund, and be well positioned against the other popular deck Raka control.
Because I actually had some time to prepare for the event, I thought that rather than flitting from deck to deck, getting a rough idea of how they work before discarding them due to my own ineptitude at piloting them making me think they’re much worse than they actually are, I would take some time and tune my beloved Esper deck into doing what I wanted it to do. I had a core experience to work with, from the WMCQ, and had the deck in its entirety on MODO, along with basically every other card I could want.
I feel like this is what draws me to control decks far more than aggressive ones. The fact that you’re able to present an entirely different deck post-board is very appealing to me, and the deck is inherently far more customisable than an aggressive deck, built to operate based on redundancy rather than individual card power is very much something that I like. Not to mention the Sphinx’s Revelation is absolutely insane at a PTQ level where people are going to miss points of damage and play sub-optimally into a wall of card advantage.
Deck building time!
The next tournament I played in was a PTQ/WMCQ double header weekend at Spellbound Games in Glasgow. The list had evolved into:-
This was a weekend of mixed results for me. Firstly, at the PTQ, I ripped through swiss before double drawing into Top 8, dispatching an unpleasant matchup in the quarterfinals before losing a three game set to RG Vorapede.dec, due to nut draw into mana screw, which was very unfortunate, due to missing out on the opportunity to play a very good matchup in the finals, though piloted by proxy master Stephen Murray.
The following morning, it was WMCQ #2 time, and I scrubbed out in round four, frustratingly, with the exact same 75 as the day before.
I felt that this deck was incredibly well positioned, having game against everything, and being, in my opinion, strongly favoured against all the decks I wanted to be favoured against.
Dragons Maze happened
Firstly, what does Sphinx’s Revelation actually do for this deck? It provides a stream of one-for-one answers, and buys some time. So card advantage, plus time. There are options, like Forbidden Alchemy or Fog that can provide one or the other, but finding a card that does both, like Sphinx’s Revelation can be very difficult.
Fortunately, if the recent Block Pro Tour has taught us nothing, it’s that Jace, Architect of Thought is probably the best card in Standard seeing no play. Jace buys time with his +1 ability, and gives you cards with his -2. And he doesn’t even get his sins collected. How fortuitous.
So, with our alternative in mind, we can look at the rest of the fallacies in the statement above.
Firstly, how many decks can actually run Sin Collector?
Really not all that many. Of those decks, how many perceive a need to run Sin Collector? After all, isn’t control dead? Sure, it does stuff other than just take Sphinx’s Revelations, but there are other hateful options available against reanimator and co. Of those decks that can and are running Sin Collector, what happens when they don’t find it?
If we assume that the magic number of Sin Collectors post board is somewhere between two and three, we’re still looking at a number of games where they just don’t draw it. What about the times when they could run it, are running it, and draw it. What if I counter it? What if I don’t have a Revelation in hand? What if I just draw another one immediately after?
When I ran this deck, I found that Sphinx’s Revelation, while insane, was a blank card in my hand until turn five, at the earliest. Sin Collector wants to come down on turn three. What do you take out of Think Twice, Supreme Verdict and Sphinx’s Revelation when you’re on the play, and have collected on curve? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m sure there’s more of a thought process involved than just snap taking the Revelation.
‘Voice of Resurgence is the best card against blue decks’.
Sure, it’s pretty good, but for the most part, against the non-reanimator decks running Voice, I’m not going to be running any counters post board, and can quite happily play on my own turn. If I’ve got eight wrath effects post board, four of which don’t even leave you with an Elemental token, and I know I’m going to cast one regardless of what the board looks like after your turn, why wouldn’t I double Think Twice at the end of turn, give you two Elementals and wrath them away? (This obviously assumes I’m not playing around cards like Boros Charm, Golgari Charm, or think that my Terminus is likely to get countered).
The best one that I can think of is that I don’t want my opponent rooting around in his backpack for his box of sweet tokens, and that’s really no reason at all.
Voice is good against blue decks. That is absolutely a fact. It’s not unbeatable, and by this point, people should be familiar enough playing against it that the free wins from people messing up against it should be pretty much gone, and we’re just left with a resilient creature, and if your control deck can’t beat a 2/2 for two with an ability, there’s something very, very wrong with how you’ve built your deck.
When in doubt; go with what you know
Now, at this point, before the final WMCQ, I ran out of playtesting time. Work got stupidly busy, and wasn’t really able to play all that much Magic. I was left with the option of playing the best deck in the format, whatever that might be, with very little or no piloting experience, playing something objectively powerful and not overly complex, like Jund, or just sticking with the devil I know, in Esper.
Obviously, I’m going to pick the Sphinx’s Revelation deck over the non-Sphinx’s Revelation deck every time, so the choice was simple. It didn’t hurt that, based on my testing, the deck still seemed pretty well positioned, with good matchups against all the things it used to have good matchups, and an excellent one against deck du jour, Junk Aristocrats, due to the presence of Jace and Wrath effects, which reduces that deck down to the equivalent of a man with a rolled up newspaper trying to cause bodily harm to a Space Marine in full power armour.
The decklist I ran, which is almost certainly not the best it could have been, was as follows:-
The card choices
This is obviously very close to what I ran before, with some upgrades, some experiments, and some cards that just didn’t do what I wanted them to do (Blood Baron of Vizkopa, I’m looking at you).
Interestingly, in this deck, I decided not to include any direct graveyard hate for Junk, as the matchup pre-board is generally pretty favourable, and given that they will have to bring in potentially dead cards like Abrupt Decay anyway, in case I do have Rest in Peace, I’d rather not bother. I’d also rather not run low impact cards like Purify the Grave, which, while it does do one thing I want to do – buy time, it’s pretty underwhelming to see a draw with multiples, and does nothing to stop them smashing you with a turn 3 Acidic Slime. Basically, that’s how this deck loses to Junk.
They’ve conveniently cut Craterhoof Behemoth, for the most part, which was basically the only way we lost before, and now it’s just relying on Slime’ing us out of the game. Unlike many decks though, we’re not just going to sit there and allow ourselves to be Slimed; we have interaction, removal spells and ways to make the Slime not resolve in the first place.
My theory was, in its place, I would run Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Basically nothing kills it in the format, and it very much fulfils one of the categories I’m looking for, in buying time. The theory was that this would race Angel of Serenity while being able to be sided in against other aggressive decks as well. Sadly, I’m an idiot, and it doesn’t stack up to Thragtusk particularly well. I like the Blood Baron, he was very impressive when he got into play, but I don’t like him in the role I was attempting to use him in, which is an important distinction.
Far and Away was far and away (couldn’t resist) one of the best Dragon’s Maze cards for this deck. I played Gary Campbell at this tournament, and he said ‘When I saw that card, I thought of you.’ It’s definitely true love, and the first time you Snapcaster a Sphix’s Revelation, then fuse this getting back your Snapcaster and killing one of their guys, I defy you to not have a twinge down there. This card is crazy good, and we’re all very lucky that the format is so fast that ‘Far my Snapcaster’ isn’t something you’re going to hear very often.
Warped Physique was an upgrade from Devour Flesh. I wanted something that could kill and Falkenrath Aristocrat, mana bug, Obzedat and a Thragtusk, and given that I’m not allowed Doomblade yet, this will have to do. I was really impressed by this card all day, and I’d encourage you to give it a bash if you haven’t already.
No Aetherling. I didn’t have time enough to try him out sufficiently. He’s really good, but I still think I’d rather kill them with my lands than having to devote spell slots to him. You have enough removal, and other nonsense that you can realistically race a resolved one, assuming you’re able to force a Revelation through every now and then, and with them sinking mana into a creature on their own turn, that’s easier done than you might think, and have an active Drownyard or two. It can be tight, and it’s very scary, but it can be done.
The scary cards for this deck to see are basically just Liliana of the Veil and Domri Rade. That’s about it. While you don’t use many non-land permanents, and CAN still win once Liliana ultimates, you’d need to be in very strong shape, and playing lands into an about to ultimate Planeswalker feels pretty horrendous. I’m not sure how to handle this problem, as outside of countering it, Detention Sphering it, or post board Pithing Needle, we’re not really able to kill it any other way.
Domri Rade is much scarier than Liliana, and in a very similar way, despite doing very different things. Again, the fact that we can’t really interact with a resolved one particularly well stings, and it might even be worth playing some sideboarded Restoration Angels, just to have a way to potentially interact with these two shortcomings.
Again, it is technically possible to beat a Domri emblem, but it’s very difficult, you’d need to have complete control of the board, a ton of lands, be on a high life total, have at least two active Drownyards and still have them brick for multiple turns in a row. It’s not likely, but I have done it.
The tournament itself was hosted by Black Lion Games in Edinburgh, and it was nice to get a local tournament for a change. It still took me over an hour to get there, as it’s about as far away from my house as it’s possible to be and still be in Edinburgh, and Sunday public transport is a dick, but them’s the breaks.
I managed to pick up a draw in round two, which was entirely avoidable, as I should have scooped about ten minutes before I did, and a loss in round three to the same deck – BG rock, due to still not having worked out a sensible sideboard configuration, and being an utter moron with my counters due to matchup unfamiliarity. I won the rest of my rounds, but ended up being the only X-1-1 that didn’t make top 8, where my run would have been Jund Aggro (coin flip), 4-colour midrange (no idea, but I can’t see why it would be bad) then UWR control (very good) in the finals.
It’s hard to be too salty. I knew I had to win out from round four onwards, and I did that. This is testament to how important it is to not lose in the early stages of a tournament. You get unpleasantness like missing top 8 on breakers, which I imagine feels only slightly better than ID’ing yourself into ninth place, as far too many players have done in the past.
There’s always next year, and I will be really disappointed if I fail to make the team again. Fortunately, the team we do have is just about the best one we could hope for again, so hopefully, we’ll see a repeat of last year’s epic Top 4 from the lads in the kilts. Gogo Team Scotland
Matchup wise, I like where this deck is at the moment. As I’m not really sure how I’d evolve the deck, I’ll avoid making suggestions, and just show you how I was boarding with this configuration, and a little about why:-
-1 Warped Physique, -2 Detention Sphere, -1 Snapcaster Mage, -1Far//Away
+2 Blood Baron, +2 Evil Twin, +1 Terminus
As always, you want to be the one to resolve the second Angel of Serenity. Evil Twin lets you do that, with mana held up to hopefully Dissipate their reply. I’ve had mixed success with adding more counters post board. The Negate’s aren’t really that good against them, but you could maybe hit a Mulch, or a flashbacked Unburial Rites to some value.
Tamiyo is your best card here. Very often, they don’t have much pressure beyond the one thing they’ve chucked out of the yard, and Tamiyo can hold that down, hopefully in concert with Jace making all the Pilgrims and co unable to attack until you can deal with the host of unpleasantness under the Angel.
Generic Aggro – Blitz, RG, Jund etc
-3 Snapcaster, -4 Dissipate, -1Tamiyo
+1 Curse of Death’s Hold, +2 Warped Physique, +1 Terminus, +2 Detention Sphere, +2 Blood Baron
Snapcaster is too slow to get any value, and an awful lot of creatures exist against which he isn’t even an Ambush Viper consistently. He has to go, sadly. Counters are far too slow. I’d rather mop up what’s on the board than try and keep things off it.
This matchup is entirely dependent on draws. The more Terminuses you miracle, the more likely you are to win. Simple as that. Draw better, win the game. Fundamentals, yo.
Aristocrats – Either configuration
-3 Snapcaster Mage
+1 Curse of Death’s Hold, +1 Detention Sphere, +1 Terminus
See above re: Snapcaster. They’re too fast for Snappy to get any value, and we really can’t afford the time to try. Not to mention, trading one of our cards for half of one of theirs is pretty diabolical, and he has to sit this one out too. Sorin is their best card against us, so we keep our counters and up the way to deal with him. Terminus is crazy good when they’re on a Blood Artist draw.
This matchup is one of the more lopsided ones in recent memory, and I’d be happy to play it all day long.
The bad news is that against Domri Naya, you just lose. I played maybe 10 games against it the night before the tournament, and won literally 0. It was unpleasant. I don’t have a good sideboard configuration for this matchup, and I’m sceptical it can be done with the 75 as it is. It probably involves cutting Dissipates, but I’ve not idea what to add. Everything else just isn’t good enough…
Control mirror – Esper, UWR, etc
-1 Warped Physique, -3 Terminus, -3 Supreme Verdict
+1 Drownyard, +1 Dispel, +2 Negate, +1 Pithing Needle, +2 Detention Sphere
Should be relatively obvious – cut most of the removal for more interaction. I think the full 4 Spheres might be too many, but we’ve got so many dead cards, and Memory Adept is still a thing. Assemble the Legion is frustrating when Jace isn’t out, but it’s slow enough that sometimes it’s fine anyway.
Esper, as always, depends entirely on if they have a Psychic Spiral or not.
Any other decks, I’m more than willing to help in the comments section, but do bear in mind, the Domri Naya matchup seems atrocious, but everything else seems more than winnable.
Stay classy mtgUK,