Esper Planeswalker Control (Standard) at Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar, by Fabrizio Anteri
I just got back from my trip to America where I was fortunate enough to take part in GP Madison and Pro Tour Battle for Zendikar in Milwaukee. I had a great time testing with a new team called Team: EUreka. I’ve learnt a lot over the past two weeks and I would like to share with you my thoughts and experiences of the new format, the deck I played and it’s evolution.
Since basically day zero I knew I wanted to explore and find the best shell for Gideon, Ally of Zendikar; the power level of this new Planeswalker is incredibly high and I wanted to make sure that we didn’t risk missing out.
Interestingly, most of the other cards that caught my attention in the new set where all white or black, so while others were exploring 4-5 colors mana bases, I was happily building an honest WB deck around Gideon.
This is how the first version of the deck looked like:
The mana looked great, being able to use Polluted Delta to fetch white mana and Flooded Strand to fetch black mana was key to have access to double white and double black early on in the games, which is vital. Early games of testing were really positive; The deck had a plan, answers to most of the commonly played cards and wouldn’t lose games as often as other decks due to mana issues.
After a few games in we realized that the discard maindeck wasn’t good enough, it would just miss way too often. Silkwrap was the best removal of the format and similarly Murderous Cut was by far the best instant speed removal of the format, so the numbers increased. The deck was great at casting multiple spells per turn and grinded very well with many 2 for 1s every turn. The mana also changed a bit and once the metagame was established we knew what we wanted to beat.
Here is what the list evolved to:
3 Arashin Cleric
2 Disdainful Stroke
1 Complete Disregard
1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
1 Minister of Pain
1 Self-Inflicted Wound
1 Painful Truths
1 Radiant Purge
I put a lot of time and effort in to the deck, results were quite good against the main decks we’d expected to beat (Megamorph, Jeskai, Atarka Red, Abzan), but somehow the rest of the team wasn’t completely convinced.
Just the day before going to Milwaukee, someone suggested to replace the Knight of the White Orchid (which wasn’t performing as well as other cards) for Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Splashing for a two drop was not what I wanted to be doing with this deck due to the mana configuration issues that would be involved, it would basically lose the entire idea of the deck being more consistent than other midrange decks in the format…
But the power of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy couldn’t be denied, and all the great interactions were too appealing for us to not risk giving it a go.
This is what the final list looked like after not many games of testing, but after a lot of discussion between all the members interested in the deck:
3 Arashin Cleric
2 Surge of Righteousness
2 Disdainful Stroke
1 Self-Inflicted Wound
1 Dragonlord Silumgar
Duress maindeck replaced Dispel to have extra interaction with Jace, Wingmate was not as good anymore with so few attacking creatures; Tasigur would be way easier to cast with Jace in the deck, Languish would be very important for protecting all the Planeswalkers of the deck and a very good way of winning the Gideon mirror match.
Half the team was happy with this list and so we spent Thursday evening after registering discussing sideboard plan and final slots.
How to battle the metagame
This is how the deck operates against the main archetypes:
This match up is slightly in our favour, or at least it was for the Pro Tour when most people didn’t know the list and wasn’t sure which cards we were playing.
Silkwrap and Ruinous Path are both excellent removals against their earlier creatures. Turn 4 is when WB gets ahead in the match; they will normally pass with Ojutai’s Command mana open and all they will find is Gideon or Sorin. High loyalty Planeswalkers is a big issue for Jeskai, their spells are not good against it and their creatures never stick around.
Note that it is more important to keep their board clear during the first 2-3 turns rather than cast your own early creatures (e.g. Jace, Hangarback). Making not only their Commands awkward to play, but also their Fiery Impulse, Wild Slash and Crackling Doom less than useful.
Some games they will have more creatures than you have removal and they may get ahead, other games you will be forced to use the minus abilities of Sorin and Ob Nixilis and be very weak to Cracking Doom. These are the games you can lose, but most of the games will play out your way (removal, removal, Planeswalker, Planeswalker, GG)
Both Duress and Dispel are very good against them, so the match post board could easily get better if they don’t have a good sideboard plan (for the first few weeks I would expect people to don’t know how to play against the deck and make mistakes during sideboarding).
Both versions of GW and Bant play out very similarly and the game plan is the same.
They don’t have much interaction and you will set up your core of Planeswakers without finding much resistance. With enough removal in the early game, you will find your grindy cards to be better than theirs and take over the game not long after.
Jace is probably your best card against them and you want to cast it as soon as possible. Their Hangarback and Raptors are easy to ignore with the plus ability of Jace and all the tokens you produce out of Hangarback, Gideon and Sorin. Den Protector and Wingmate Roc could generate enough value for them to grind you out if you don’t draw any Languish, but overall the match is very good for WB.
Also on the Play:
Stroke is a decent card to answer their best threats (Gideon and Wingmate) but you can’t really afford to pass with mana open if they already have some threats on board, this makes the Strokes worst on the draw. At the same time, if they want to waste their turn 3 casting a Silkwrap on your Hangarback Walker then they are losing a lot of tempo– and that’s a deal I am happy to take!
Against Atarka Red:
Game 1 is almost impossible to win and the only realistic way this would happen is if they mulligan and/or don’t manage to do their stuff.
That’s why we have so much hate in the sideboard against them. Post board games are so good that I would even call the whole match a 51-49 match up for WB.
I was also cutting a land on the draw and keeping the fourth Jace.
Important to mention that this sideboard plan was made based on the “combo” version of Become Immense + Temur Battlerage. I saw some people playing Hooting Mandrills and Flamewake Phoenix at the Pro Tour, not sure what numbers they are running or if they completely cut the combo post board. In any case, having access to 3 Languish when their “best plan” is to play 4/4s with Trample and 4/4s with Flying is another deal I would happily take.
During testing we were mostly using the Blue version of Abzan that was popular in the SCG open; the deck played quite well against it, but I think it was mostly for having a more solid mana base. In many games they just had clunky hands with awkward sequencing of spells and we were just much better at casting two spells a single turn and grind them out.
Sideboard plan here will change a lot depending on their list. Before the Pro Tour there were a lot of versions from very aggressive, to midrange and control. Now with the winning decklist from the Pro Tour I would expect to be easier to figure what cards are most people running in their Abzan lists
Against Esper Dragons:
Game one is quite hard because of all the dead cards in the maindeck, but we also have a very high number of Planeswalkers which are quite hard to answer to some decklists of Dragons.
Post board the deck gets a lot of good cards against them. We didn’t playtest this match that much and I am unsure if it’s closest to even or to 45-55, in any case it’s not a match impossible to win.
The sideboard plan may change depending on what they are doing post board (Jace, Tasigur, Ojutai, Dragonlord Silumgar, Ugin, Silumgar The Drifthing Death, Ob Nixilis), but I would like to start with this plan in the dark.
You may notice there is an Erase in the sideboard which didn’t make the cut in any of the matches we expected. It was in there in case of problematic enchantments coming from the sideboard like Evolutionary Leap or Mastery of the Unseen or against brews out of our radar like Jeskai Ascendancy or Abzan Ascendancy.
Overall I was really happy with the deck 7 of us played in the Pro Tour. It certainly had a great time against the decks we expected the most; sadly however, it didn’t have a very proactive plan and it found some troubles fighting some of the home brews people took to the tournament. None of my teammates did particularly well with the deck, although they didn’t do horribly either. Most of the reason why I was the only one ending with a very good record (8-2) was because I was the only one not finding on my way any of these brews we were not prepared for: I played Atarka red 4 times, Jeskai 3 times, Abzan twice and Megamorph once.
Is this deck good going forward? I wouldn’t play the exact same 75 next weekend, but there is a very powerful shell to work on and once the metagame for the next weeks is established, the decklist could be adapted and be a big contender.
What do you think of the deck? and how would you improve it? Please let me know in the comments below.
Thanks for reading,