Grand Prix Toronto did not go according to plan.
Two weeks ago I felt on top of the world for the first time in a long time (when it came to Standard, anyway). I had a finely tuned list of the best deck in the format, I had the experience to know what to do in the mirror, and I was busting up decks of all shapes and sizes in every event I entered. I was riding high on the Esper train, and immortality was within my grasp. Knowing I only had time in my calendar for one of the two Grand Prix events within driving distance this month, I audibled away from a free place to crash for Grand Prix Atlantic City, and booked a spot at Grand Prix Toronto – Standard was mine to dominate, and I was more prepared than I had ever before been for a Standard GP.
Then, the RPTQ's happened.
The breakdown of the successful decks at the RPTQs all over the world demonstrated that, though Esper (and blue control in general) is well-positioned, they are not as dominant as first impressions may show. Abzan decks of a variety of flavors are right there with the dragons on the roost, and monored variants are only a stone's throw behind. These three decks are the top tier of Standard – which didn't surprise me of course, this is known info at this point – but the target on the Esper deck couldn't be ignored. Doubt creeped in where confidence lived and I began to second-guess my choices. Discussion with other players gave me insights and advice and I started to think perhaps I wasn't as experienced as I thought – maybe I should be listening to what these other friends (many of whom have played way more Standard than I have) had to say.
I tweaked my list, and tried to figure out how to beat everything. Instead, I found a good way to beat nothing.
Why I Played What I Played
Esper Dragons is the premiere control deck in Standard. It's a solid deck with strong control elements backed by versatile and hard-to-kill threats. It gives you access to two of the strongest cards in the current environment, in Silumgar's Scorn and Foul-Tongue Invocation. You have strong matchups against most of the generic randomness in the format, and can design the deck in a way that makes Abzan favorable. Monored is about the worst matchup out there, but you can definitely manage to win games post-board.
On a personal note, I chose this deck because I have a strong fundamental understanding of control decks, and have massive amounts of experience in control mirrors via my history in Legacy. There are likely only a handful of players in the world with more hours under their belt in Landstill mirrors, and nothing trains you on patience in a mirror like that does. After playing the deck at StarCity Syracuse last month, I felt quite prepared to make the appropriate changes to the list I played at that event and bring it to a larger field.
I ended up with this 75:
What Went Wrong
I lost three rounds on Saturday. The first was a round four feature match against Christian Calcano. Christian was on UB Control without dragons, more of an Adrian Sullivan list than a PVDDR list. His deck was well tuned for the mirror, and he was ahead at all points. In our first game I kept a six-land plus Anticipate hand. I knew Calcano was on control as I'd seen him play earlier in the day and that hand is great in the mirror. My first draw yielded Thoughtseize, and I played it on my turn three with two blue available. I did not have Silumgar's Scorn, but represented it. The reason I played it this turn was specifically to take away his ability to play Ashiok on turn three, which would be crippling to me with my hand as it was. Thoughtseize resolved, and his hand was two lands, Anticipate, Dig Through Time, Jace's Ingenuity, Dissolve, Disdainful Stroke. I took the Jace's Ingenuity, expecting the game to play out like a traditional control mirror and go extremely long, and wanted to neutralize his ability to reload once we traded blows. On my end step he cast Anticipate, and said, "Well, that's interesting." He played a land on his turn and cast Ashiok. I died.
In our second game, I mulliganed and kept six cards with awkward mana but a Downfall and Dissolve. Again I Thoughtseized on turn three, this time not able to keep up two blue, but representing Negate. This time he had a hand full of Counterspells plus two Digs, so I was priced into taking a Dig. We played land-go for a few turns until he played Ashiok with Dissolve backup, and though I was hoping for a second Thoughtseize to clear the path for Downfall, I was forced to attempt it naked. It resolved, and Calcano simply cast a second Ashiok on his next turn – again with Counterspell backup. I died again.
The second match I lost was against monored. In game one I died as I am likely to do. It was not a particularly close game. In game two my deck showed up and I got to do what I am supposed to post-board, utterly demoralizing my opponent. In our third game I mulled a five land, Ojutai, Crux hand. Then I mulled a no land six card hand, and kept a five card hand of:
Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Drown in Sorrow
I immediately drew a Haven of the Spirit Dragon. There are not many five-card hands I would prefer than this specific one. However, my opponent eventually leveraged his additional cards to overcome my three removal spells, and finished me off with a rag-tag team of goblins. I made a questionable decision with a scry land, pushing a Silumgar's Scorn to the bottom in an attempt to find a more interactive spell (thinking I would just be playing the Silumgar, the Drifting Death I had in hand on my next turn). My friends seemed to think I should have kept, chosen not to play Silumgar with Downfall plus Scorn up, countered his next spell and played Silumgar on a more clear board. I'm not sure it would have changed my fate, but it may have been a better line.
The third loss was to Red/Green Dragons, where our second and third games largely came down to an inability to overcome the advantage garnered by an Outpost Siege. I probably made at least an error or two in this match, I think I may have been mentally checked out at this point. Our third game largely revolved around turn five, where I had to play a land tapped and could not activate my Perilous Vault. This allowed my opponent to use a topdecked Destructive Revelry to Remove it, and likely cost me the match.
How I Could Have Avoided These Problems
I made a number of errors that contributed to the results in Toronto, some of them before I even sat down for my first round.
1. I second guessed myself in deck construction.
Up until Friday night, my intended list had a pair of Ashiok in the maindeck, over the 28th land and the Dragonlord's Prerogative. I allowed myself to be convinced that they were not needed, despite my experiences of their value in both the mirror and Abzan matchups. Essentially, I was swayed by their lack of use in the monored matchup, and I tried to hedge by changing the removal suite to move myself in a direction better suited for that match, while putting cards that are only good in the mirror in their stead anyway. I didn't actually get myself anywhere positive by doing so, but I lost a key spell in those matchups. At the same time, I convinced myself to run Risen Executioner in the sideboard in the slots that could have been for Ashiok, largely due to circular reasoning. I cut the Ashioks from the main because they were "only" good in the mirror, but I didn't put them in the board because I had Executioner which is also only good in the mirror, so I didn't need them.
2. Losing sleep and lack of preparedness for exactly this scenario caused a loss of focus by the end of the day.
I refuse to lean too heavily on this error because I know it's a cop-out and a common excuse. Despite knowing this, I still have the issue. I was up most of the night due to a snorer in the hotel room, meaning I was not on top of my game from the onset. I tried (but not nearly hard enough) to find a Five Hour Energy or some similar product to boost me through the later rounds, but gave up too easily, assuming I'd be fine. I was not.
3. I tried too hard to beat monored.
You can't beat every deck in the format. What I probably should have done was accept that I can't be positive against monored without significantly warping my deck to do so and tried to have a better matchup against the mirror and the green decks. I say this specifically because the monored matchup starts out so poorly in game one. By adding a bunch of spells that are great against red in the sideboard, I attempt to go from about a 20% game one to a 60-65% game two, which still leaves me way behind in the match overall. "Ignoring" that deck and trying to let the pairings dictate my success is obviously a risky proposition (especially if the deck remains as prominent as it has been), but I already expected it to be in some decline due to the prevalence of the Megamorph and Abzan Aggro decks I was predicting in the meta. In that scenario, setting myself up to win these more winnable matchups would likely yield a better overall result.
4. Small-ball errors that added up.
Around round five, I noticed that I was not playing perfectly, and began tracking the mistakes I was making. The final loss to RG Dragons was a perfect example. Sequencing your lands is one of the most important challenges with Esper, and knowing the opponent had boarded in Revelry (it was revealed to Outpost Siege in game two), I should have either held the Vault until I could clear the way via Thoughtseize or protected it for a turn, or I should have properly chained my lands to give me untapped land drops on turn four and five. Countering threats on turns one through three is less relevant when you plan to clear the board on turn five. Either way I would have avoided being Time Walked on turn four. Recognition of the plan from turn one on was lacking in some matches, and I was punished for it.
What This Event Told Me About Myself as a Player, and How I Intend to Correct That Moving Forward
I've been a little one-note lately. I had a conversation with my traveling companions on the way home from Toronto, and came to the conclusion that I've been remiss in my default-to-control approach to Standard. If I'm being completely honest with myself, the amount that I enjoy a given Standard environment has a direct correlation with the strength of control in that format. Perhaps causation is even present.
In this event, it appears to be fairly clear that despite the strength of control, aggressive strategies are just as good or even better, and I may have been much better off with a deck like Abzan Aggro in my bag. However, my biases lead me to believe that control was the stronger deck, largely because of my lower comfort level with that deck rather than any inherent difference between the viability of the two decks.
I am not adept at aggro or midrange mirrors. I don't believe I would be capable of sitting across from the stronger players in the field and beating them head to head via combat math. This is a weakness of mine that has been readily apparent for a long time if I were willing to face that fact, and yet instead of working to improve that part of my game, I've avoided it by playing largely non-interactive decks. I can do better. I can't allow fear to dictate my deck selection, and if I do allow it, I can blame nothing but that fear any my own acceptance of it for my shortcomings.
My game plan for course correction is Forced Adaptation. For the next few months, I will avoid playing control strategies. I will test, prepare, and execute with aggressive or midrange decks that rely on the tight margins of combat to win. I will attempt to steal games one life point at a time, rather than in chunks of five to infinite. I will improve a weak point via practice and repetition, and see the world from the perspective of the red zone. This will be contrary to my nature entirely, and I must change that nature lest I be crippled by it. I will lose, and probably lose often. However, evolution as a player must come from self-assessment; and just as in a game of Magic, when you find a weak point you must attack it with Vigor if you hope to succeed. I'm not satisfied making excuses or rationalizations as to why I didn't live up to my own lofty expectations. Rather than post hoc ergo proptor hoc, it's time to hoc proper. I hope you'll join me for the ride.