Esper Planeswalkers: 2nd is just the 1st Place loser – Fact not Fiction by Michael Maxwell
A couple of weekends ago saw the largest PTQ the UK has ever seen, with 302 players turning up in Manchester to battle for a free flight all the way to Dublin. This Standard season has been an unusual one for me, as I couldn’t find a deck I was particularly happy with.
I’d played Esper control at the previous events and ended up with a bunch of mediocre results, and the release of Dragon’s Maze had only made things worse for the archetype with Voice of Resurgence and Sire of Insanity giving control decks a real headache. Aetherling was a card I was definitely interested in casting though, as it wins so many games single handed, and Sphinx’s Revelation is still ridiculous, so it was just a case of figuring out whether I wanted to play red, black, or green as the third colour.
I tried all three, and I wasn’t too impressed with any configuration. A resolved Aetherling was generally game over, but if I didn’t have one, or was very close to dead when I cast it, then I was losing most of the time. Cards like Voice and Sire really want you to be more proactive, which is what pushed me towards Planeswalkers.
I had used a walker heavy Esper deck to split a local win a box tournament pre-DGM, where Sorin had defeated multiple people by himself, as a starting point to come up with this:
4 x Sphinx’s Revelation
3 x Dead Weight
2 x Think Twice
1 x Detention Sphere
2 x Dissipate
4 x Azorius Charm
2 x Warped Physique
3 x Lingering Souls
2 x Syncopate
2 x Supreme Verdict
1 x Ultimate Price
3 x Drowned Catacomb
4 x Hallowed Fountain
4 x Glacial Fortress
3 x Watery Grave
3 x Isolated Chapel
4 x Godless Shrine
1 x Vault of the Archangel
2 x Nephalia Drownyard
1 x Ghost Quarter
1 x Plains
1 x Island
The Card Choices
How did I come up with the exact numbers on the Planeswalkers? Honestly, it was just a combination of my experience of the format and guesswork. I was pretty sure 2 Aetherling was correct, and I knew I didn’t want more than one Jace, Memory Adept, but there was nothing terribly scientific about the other numbers. The same goes for the removal split, having played with Esper decks a fair bit I was confident that the numbers wouldn’t be too far off but they weren’t the product of endless testing.
Dead Weight is a bit unusual, but since I cut Augur of Bolas (don’t want to be bottoming my walkers) playing non-instants and sorceries is fine, and when playing draw-go Esper a lot of my losses were to the super-aggressive decks, where being able to kill their early drops is crucial and Tragic Slip doesn’t always get the job done in that regard.
Warped Physique is in there to either be Doom Blade on turn 2 or as a way to deal with a Sire through a Cavern before I lose my hand. Syncopate gets better when you’re tapping out more, as being cheaper than Dissipate becomes very relevant, but you still want some Dissipates for the late game. The one Ghost Quarter has been present in all my control decks and I love having access to one. Hopefully everything else makes sense, if you have any questions about particular choices just let me know in the comments.
A couple of cars headed down from Preston, and after an understandable wait whilst over 300 people were registered, we got underway around 12ish. It was a long day so I’m not going to go through each round in detail, I’ll just mention some of the more interesting decisions and events that happened.
Here’s how the rounds went:
Win 2-1 vs Alexander Swan with R/G aggro
Win 2-1 vs Gabriel Bell with Junk Aristocrats
Win 2-0 vs Ian Robinson with Junk Reanimator
Win 2-0 vs Chris Delo with 4-colour Reanimator
Win 2-0 vs Rob Wagner with Jund
Win 2-1 vs Daniel Breakwell with Junk Reanimator
Win 2-1 vs Henry Edmondson with R/G aggro
ID with Kayure Patel
Win 2-0 vs Mike Burke with Jund
Win 2-0 vs Ross Silcock with U/W/R control
Win 2-1 vs Andy Devine with Naya
Loss 2-1 vs Mats Volberg with R/b aggro
Both my matches against R/G aggro were extremely close. It’s important not to get too greedy with your wraths, you’ll win the long game so use your cheap spells early on even if you have a wrath so your life total doesn’t get too low. If Supreme Verdict gets a 2-for-1 that’s more than fine. Killing their guys early on also lets you land a Sorin and have him protect himself reasonably well. In both matches there were points where I had to make plays which would lose to one sequence but not another, in these instances you just have to decide what you think they have in hand based on how the game is gone and then cross your fingers.
Sometimes in these situations you are dead regardless, and sometimes you will make the best percentage play and die, but all you can do is go with your read and hope for the best – if you’re going to do well in a 300 person tournament you need a bit of luck, and I definitely got it at the right moments in these games.
Other than the two R/G aggro matches I played against 6 midrange decks, all which had major trouble dealing with my Planeswalkers and Aetherlings. Sorin and Tamiyo both hold off Thragtusk quite well, Angel of Serenity doesn’t really interact with what I’m doing, and Aetherling is pretty unbeatable.
Every time my opponent had Sire of Insanity it just didn’t matter. Sire doesn’t really beat any of the Planeswalkers or Aetherling, and my opponents were often forced to play Sire anyway because they were down on cards and would then lose to my board in short order. Draw-go Esper would have been in real trouble in these situations, but being more proactive makes Sire much worse.
Over the course of these games I ultimated Tamiyo, Jace, Memory Adept, and Sorin – getting to ultimate Tamiyo and then mill myself for 10 with Jace was particularly sweet – and it was painfully obvious for all my midrange opponents how few ways they had to profitably deal with my Planeswalkers.
After starting out 7-0 I took an ID in round 8 to lock up my slot, and then I had a decision to make in round 9. If I drew again I figured I would end up around 5th-6th depending on tiebreaks and how many of the people on 21 points played it out (I figured most of them should play). If I played and lost I would end up 7th-8th, and if I won I was guaranteed to come top of the swiss.
VS Mike Burke with Jund
Given that a loss and a draw are basically the same I figured I might as well play, but I if I got paired against a friend who needed the draw to make it then I’d probably agree to draw. As it turned out I got paired against someone I didn’t know, so I played it out, which you can see here courtesy of Caravel Gaming:
If you ever get filmed whilst playing at a tournament I strongly encourage you to watch the recordings when you get the chance. You’ll notice all sorts of mistakes, misplays, and other lines you could have taken that you didn’t realise at the time. You’ll also notice mannerisms and movements that give away information that you don’t necessarily realise that you do.
Game 1 I did notice the pause that suggested he might have drawn Bonfire and then played Sorin into it, which was obviously quite poor. I look quite far behind for a significant portion of game one, but Aetherling is pretty ridiculous and if you didn’t think it that impressive then hopefully this game convinces you otherwise. There’s a turn where I pass with 3 mana up, only one of which is blue. This was deliberate, as I was holding Syncopate at the time, and was hoping he’d run a 5-drop into it since I didn’t have Dissipate up. Obviously it didn’t work this time as he played Liliana but it’s important to bear these sorts of plays in mind.
Game 2 was fairly straightforward, as Mike failed to find black mana at any point and Lingering Souls plus Aetherling make short work of him. I’d also like to mention that the commentary is pretty good in my opinion – at the very least what they are talking about tended to mirror my thought processes.
VS Ross Silcock with U/W/R control
Playing out the last round allowed Ross Silcock to squeak into 8th place, which meant we would be facing off in the quarter final, which is recorded here:
I don’t know what the UK record is for the most PTQ top 8s without a win is, but if someone has more than Ross’s 13 then I’d be surprised (7 with no conversion for me now). Ross also taught me a lot about how to play Magic back when I lived in Manchester, so having to try and knock him out wasn’t the perfect situation for me and I really hope he gets his chance at the Pro Tour soon.
Game 1 I don’t really like how I played the first game. Given that Ross mulliganed to 4 I just wanted to end the game quickly, but I think I was too aggressive. I don’t hate flashing back either Lingering Souls but there was no reason to run out Tamiyo when he was at 10 and I had 4 power on the board, that was really bad in retrospect.
There is also an argument for trying to get Jace, Architect of Thought up to ultimate but I figured he probably had dead burn spells at that point so I may as well make sure I get some value. I could have used Drownyard to mill myself early on to find some flashback spells, but there was only 1 Lingering Souls in my deck at that point so I think going straight for Ross was fine.
I was a bit worried in the mid-game as I drew a huge string of lands and removal spells, so an Assemble the Legion or Aetherling would have made short work of me if he’d drawn one at that point. This was the only game of the tournament that I won with Drownyard, which is further testament to the power of the walkers and Aetherling. You definitely still need a couple of Drownyards for matches like these though. Deciding how to spend your mana when both players have Syncopate is also quite interesting, which is what I’m doing when I Revelation in response to Warleader’s Helix.
Game 2 I get very lucky as Ross has a Revelation for 4 and a draw step to hit anything that stops Aetherling for one turn but manages to draw 5 lands. I tap my mana badly the turn after playing Aetherling, which means I cant fight over my Detention Sphere without leaving my shapeshifter vulnerable, which is pretty awkward and almost costs me the game. Lapses of concentration like this can easily cost you in close matches against good players.
VS Andy Devine with Naya
In the Semi-final I played another familiar face, Andrew Devine and his Naya deck. Game one his stream of must-answer threats backed up with Domri Rade make fairly short work of me.
Game 2 I manage to stabilise with Sorin and Aetherling finishes the job. Game three is the closest game, as he gets me down to 12 before I start playing much of relevance. Tamiyo keeps his land on lockdown to protect me from Thundermaw, and Jace goes to work on his library. He finds another land and I resign myself to losing Tamiyo, but he doesn’t have a play. The turn before Jace is going to win me the game he gets a 6th land and plays the Aurelia that he’d been holding the entire game, but Drownyard finishes the job.
It’s 12:30 by this point, and everyone is pretty tired so it’s straight onto the final against R/b aggro, which you can see here:
Game 1 I feel like I played this match pretty badly to be honest. I made mistakes in all the games that I’ve rewatched on camera, but those tended to me individual mistakes whereas game 1 of this match the problem was that I didn’t have a game plan in mind. Every turn I would change my mind about how aggressive to be. Since he’d gone to 5 and I had some spirits I wanted to put the game away quickly, but there was no need to do that, I should have just done what I’d done all through the tournament and just protect my life total until a Planeswalker can win me the game. I got punished in the end by racing too much and drawing a string of expensive cards which weren’t conducive to racing, and then I die to a Thundermaw.
Game 2 In the second game I play too conservatively, which was probably due to dying from 8 with 2 blockers in play the previous game and knowing that a loss would cost me a spot at the PT, but you shouldn’t really let what the match is for affect how you play. I even manage to miss a pretty obvious on-board kill for a turn, and while tiredness is not an excuse for how badly I played this match in general I will put that one down to it being my 12th match of the day.
Game 3 sees me stumble on lands, get my hand ripped to bits and just like that I’m dead and on my way home with nothing but some boosters and commiserations from my friends who had stayed till 1.30 in the morning to watch me lose. The commentators were right in that I wasn’t expecting too much of this matchup, I expected more R/G and Naya, and so my sideboard options were fairly limited. A few Duresses were probably the way to go though, so there’s something to be learned there. Whilst it’s not the best sideboard card ever for this matchup just being able to remove more of my expensive cards would have helped, and it protects me from Skullcrack et al.
I didn’t get home until 2.30 so decided to skip the WMCQ the next day since I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was too tired to be that upset at losing the final at the time, but looking back it does sting, especially given the way I played the final. The Planeswalkers were all awesome though, so I encourage anyone with some competitive standard left to play to bring some friends along for the ride.
Also, check out the other coverage from the PTQ and WMCQ the following day, there’s some good content there. Guys like Caravel Gaming and MetaGames Live are doing great work and should be thanked and supported at every opportunity.
Thanks for reading,