This weekend I played James Buckingham's Esper Control list to a 38th place finish (10-5, tied with 28th thru 42nd) in the StarCity Games Open in Syracuse.
I don't often write much about Standard because I don't get the opportunity to play in many large Standard events, and I leave the writing on the format to its many experts. However, I have a large volume of experience on this deck in a small margin of time, and I feel it's worth sharing that with you, the loyal reader.
First, let's take a look at my event:
R1 – John Wasson – Jeskai Aggro - W
R2 – Alex Johnson – Monored - W
R3 – Tom Clark – Monored - W
R4 – Andy Boswell – Esper Control - L
R5 – Treven McKeone – Monored - W
R6 – Simon Carisse – Esper Control - W
R7 – Max Mitchell – Abzan Aggro - L
R8 – Scott Sekuterski – Jeskai Tokens – L
R9 – Andy Wartooth – BW Warriors - W
R10 – Matt Denove – Jeskai Tokens - W
R11 – Zack Putnam – Jeskai Aggro - L
R12 – Kevin Hamel – Monored - W
R13 – Jeff Smith – Naya Midrange - W
R14 – Bob Martin – RG Monsters - L
R15 – Dakota Sheldon – RG Monsters - W
As a long-time player of control across multiple formats, I can say one thing without Hesitation – Monored is almost universally considered a terrible matchup. And yet, if you look through my results in this event, I played against that deck four times, along with playing against Jeskai Aggro and Tokens twice each, and Red-based Dragons decks another three times. In the four matches against Monored, I went 4-0, and went 50/50 or better against all other versions of red decks. By the end of day one, I began every round secretly hoping to see an opponent open on Mountain, Foundry Street Denizen, and I actually consider the deck to be one of this Esper build's best matchups.
You heard that right – I think Monored aggro is Esper's best matchup. At least, when you're playing this build it may be.
What changes the dynamic of that match so drastically as to push it dominantly into our favor?
Each of these cards manipulates the matchup in specific ways that give you a much better potential for winning game one. Post-board, the addition of Drown in Sorrow and Arashin Cleric, in addition to extra copies of Ojutai's Command and Foul-Tongue Invocation, skew the matchup significantly in your favor.
Let's dig a little into each of these cards and what role they serve.
Bile Blight – There's a ton of debate going on right now among Esper aficionados on whether Bile Blight or Ultimate Price is the superior choice for the two-mana removal slot in control. Personally I feel there is merit to both alternatives, though I personally chose to play the version running three Blight and zero Price for metagame reasons. Ultimate Price is a much better card in a matchup like RG Monsters (though there could be some debate leveraged on that claim), but against decks like Abzan Aggro and Monored (traditionally bad matchups), Bile Blight is far superior. My choice to run one over the other came down to three "creatures" – Fleecemane Lion, Mantis Rider, and Hordeling Outburst. I strongly felt the ability to deal with these three creatures (especially on the draw) was more important than potentially having a dead Bile Blight when facing down a Stormbreath Dragon. You have eight Counterspells and four Hero's Downfalls to focus on the large threats, where Bile Blight is a superior spell for catching back up in the early game. The mana constraints it puts on the deck are real, but I feel that can be addressed in other ways rather than forcing your removal to be more cost-effective in exchange for a less relevant mode. This is also one of the main reasons that I feel comfortable with the following spell...
Foul-Tongue Invocation – At first glance this spell seems particularly weak given the amount of decks in the current standard running Token strategies or mana creatures. And yet, against these decks I still found myself boarding in my extra copy or, at worst, leaving the singleton in. It has applications in nearly every matchup. Against Monored, for example, you can leverage your Bile Blights, Counterspells and Downfalls to eliminate most of the wider threats, and utilize Invocation as a way to mop up a random dashed threat and put yourself out of burn range. Against RG Monsters, you can often answer the mana creatures via Blight or Crux, leaving Invocation available as a way to off a Thunderbreak Regent without targeting it, and keeping you above Crater's Claws range. In both of these matchups Silumgar the Drifting Death is actually a more effective threat than Ojutai, as it tends to assist with the mopping up, and allows you to better leverage your removal on the "real" threats. Against the Esper mirror, Invocation is a way to answer opposing Silumgars and Ojutais. Against Jeskai it's a great answer to a Goblin Rabblemaster on the play, or can off a Mantis Rider and effectively Remove the damage the haste turn did. Because you run a "sweeper" style removal spell in the maindeck, you have the capability of doing these things despite any tokens they can muster. Ultimate Price doesn't get you there, which is why I think the card is under the radar right now. Four life is a huge chunk, and it's been an important factor in many of my wins so far.
Ojutai's Command – Speaking of four life, I've gained more times than drawn cards with this spell. In some matchups, this is Bone to Ash (which is fine). In other matches, this is Offering to Asha (also fine). It can also emulate Resupply (not great, but against some decks you want that mode). In each of these scenarios you're generally satisfied. It is not insane all the time, but it is one of your best tools against Monored. We'll come back to this one.
Narset Transcendent – I had a lot of questions about how good Narset was for me this weekend. In fact, basically everyone I didn't play against asked. Anyone I did play against didn't have to ask, because they already knew. Narset is awesome. In any match where your opponent is not on black spells, Narset has such a high loyalty that significant resources are required to be invested into taking her down. I had one Monored opponent Lightning Strike her at EoT and untap to Wild Slash her twice to finish off her loyalty. That's already a three-for-one without drawing a single card, and she also gained me seven life! The opponent has to decide between allowing me to tick her up and Reap potential advantage, allow me to do something insane like Rebound a Dig Through Time, or to put themselves in a serious hole to focus on her rather than my life total. If they do ignore her, three turns later they could be locked out of the game via her ultimate! In a deck that runs as many Counterspells as this one does, it can truly feel like the only opportunity you'll have to answer her is immediately on her resolution, because once the Esper player untaps with Narset in play the game can be just about over. On the other hand, sometimes the opponent has an overwhelming board state or can kill her on the spot. That is a difficult position to be in, but the 'walkers that can get out of spots like that are the best that have ever been printed. She's not strong enough to be a plan A in some matchups, but she is a solid role-player. She allowed me to Ultimate and lock out two monored players this weekend – one with an Outpost Siege in play, and the other with two Outpost Sieges in play.
I mentioned that Bile Blight was the first reason I decided to play Buckingham's list over Shaheen Soorani's. The second was Arashin Cleric.
Arashin Cleric – I will admit, the recent foray into Modern UW Sun Titan control colored my perception of this little guy. I've been winning so many games with Lone Missionary that I felt like this deck really, really wanted that effect, and James's list was willing to accommodate. What this little 1/3 does is probably easy to overlook, but his role is critical in the red matchup. He comes down early as a speed bump that often brings you back from 15-ish to 18-ish. For the most part, that means he tends to Negate the first two turns of your opponent's play. He then trades off for a number of your opponent's threats, or road blocks them until they're forced to trade a burn spell for him. Often this is a Lightning Strike, but if you're lucky he eats a Stoke the Flames. Then, usually much later in the game, you utilize a rare mode on Ojutai's Command to either counter a creature or gain 4 life, plus return a creature of CMC 2 or less to the battlefield. He comes in again and offers you another Healing Salve, and braces for impact. The amount of life this deck is capable of gaining post-board is kind of astounding. Often your red deck opponents will find themselves flooding out, maligning their bad luck – but that's a flaw in their strategy, not a problem with their randomization. Here's a little theorycrafting:
Essentially, a red deck (or a BW Warriors deck, or any small-mana rush deck) is trying to close the game out in the first six turns or so. To facilitate this speed, they cut their mana curve down significantly, often topping off at three mana or less. Because they have such a low curve, they can cut mana sources, but have to maintain enough lands to insure they draw their first two or three. Usually this means they end up around 1/3 lands (20-22 is where most of them sit). As a control deck, I'm running 26 lands. The difference is I can make use of basically every land from one though nine, and often more than even that. I actively want to hit land drops, where every land beyond the third is a dead card for the red deck. When we both run near average (there's about a 6% difference in likelihood of hitting a land on your next draw step for the four land difference between the two decks), we'll draw *about* the same number of lands – except I have scry lands, Anticipates, Dig Through Times, Dissolves, etc. to make sure my lands are there when I need them and not when I don't, and they are forced to rely on the reduced mana count of the deck to keep the gas coming. So when the game goes beyond the ideal four to six turns they plan for, those averages start to come into play, and the longer the game drags out, the more likely the red deck is to feel like they "flooded out." As a control player, this is the ideal situation. You know their spells have less impact the longer the game goes, and that the key to utilizing your much more powerful, much more expensive spells is getting them into a stage of the game where you can be effective at a high life total. This is where cards like Cleric, Invocation, Ojutai's Command etc. shine. On the surface, each of them seems like a low-impact play; in reality they often function like a much more powerful card – Time Walk. That gets thrown around a lot in Magic writing, but when it comes to life gain against a red player, it's pretty accurate.
That's a lot to digest about largely one matchup, but in reality it describes most of the major incentives to playing this style of deck in a field largely dominated by aggressive strategies.
So where did things go wrong for me this weekend? I did pretty well by my own metrics – though I missed Top 32 on tiebreakers; a 10-5 record put me in the running for a slot in that bracket. Had my opponents performed a little better after facing me, I could have ended up with an extra Ben in my pocket. Way to go, opponents. (Just kidding of course. Everyone I played was amicable, kind, and deserving of great respect.)
My first loss was to Andy Boswell in the Esper Mirror. Andy was on Shaheen's maindeck, with a few adjustments to the board. We met at 3-0 in the feature match, and eventually you'll be able to check out the end of our match on YouTube. I learned a lot about the mirror from playing this match, and my discussions with Andy and Matt Costa after its completion. I think I made a fundamental error in the match that led to my loss. I misevaluated the importance of Dig Through Time as a key spell in the match. I was willing to invest in stopping Andy from resolving one, at least in game one, and that mistake led me to be behind when I was low on action. He correctly identified that the real fight is over the threats – the Dragons and Narset – and everything else is as air. If you look at Dig as a slightly different take on Divination, it makes a lot less sense to fight over it, even if that parallel is a weak one. There is so little card advantage in the mirror that you kind of have to let them use their spells where they want; to be sure you can protect the real important cards. I adjusted to this mentality better in game two, though I did still counter a Dragonlord's Prerogative, when I could/should have let it resolve. I feel like I tightened up quite a bit for game two, and our game (and probably the difference between a loss in the match and a draw) came down to literally the last spell in each of our hands. I won't spoil the scenario, you'll have to watch it for yourself. I thought it was quite exciting. I will note that I think Andy had the advantage post-board in being better set up for the mirror, but I think his deck was quite a dog to aggro. Thoughtseize may be better than Duress overall, because you mostly want it in the big creature and control matches (I could only board it in the mirror), and having the ability to take a Dragon out of their hand is more relevant than I originally anticipated.
I used the lessons I learned in the match with Andy in my second mirror match with Simon, where he made similar mistakes to those I made in that first game of round four. I managed to capitalize on my foreknowledge to eventually take that match 2-1.
I lost one round to Abzan aggro in a match where I felt way behind the entire time. They play resilient creatures that are difficult to answer, have hand disruption to eliminate the answers you do have, and the power of their threats makes them easily avoid over-committing to the board the way other aggressive decks do, straining you to answer them on a one-for-one basis. I think the matchup is bad, but I haven't had the opportunity to test it enough to really solve that issue yet. That's a problem to be dealt with in the coming weeks, for sure. UB had the same issue, and I don't think the matchup has changed all that much.
The remaining rounds, I feel that my losses were in a significant way predicated by manabase woes. This is not to say "I got mana screwed and lost," as much as it is to say I feel like the construction of the manabase can be improved to better facilitate the deck's strengths, and marginalize the areas where you feel vulnerable. You absolutely cannot afford to miss land drops in this format – not before turn six or so anyway – and the constraints on the colors of mana you require are impossible to ignore. Additionally, while you may consider Anticipate as part of your mana base, taking an early turn off to Anticipate for a land drop is just as crippling as missing the land can be, and overall I was largely unimpressed with Anticipate anyway. I expected it to be an auto four-of, but the more I played with it, the more I got the feeling it was a do-nothing spell just taking up room. Between the scrying you do with lands and Dissolve, and the mid-game use of Ojutai and Dig, you see a ton of cards, and I think you can probably shave on the Anticipates to make room for other things.
After playing five rounds of FNM followed by 15 rounds of Open, along with a ton of games in-between, I feel like this is the next step in the evolution of the list as I'd play it in an event tomorrow:
I think this list manages to maintain the strong performance against the matchups it already did well against – the hyper-aggressive decks and control mirror – and gives more depth to the interaction with some of the more difficult matchups. An additional two mana removal spell in the main gives you another way to deal with Rabblemaster on the draw that doesn't prevent you from keeping up Dissolve on turn three, and an extra UW scry land gives you more consistent mana draws without sacrificing utility from the Anticipate it replaced. In the board we've removed some of the less effective spells for a pair of answers to powerful creatures in tough matchups, and replaced the Duress with Thoughtseize to give us more broad application for those spells.
What I want to impress, and what was probably most surprising to me as a player who usually avoids Standard, was how much I enjoyed playing this deck regardless of win or loss. I felt like the deck played right into all the things I love about control, even when it played a little different from your typical do-nothing control deck. There were times when the smallest of margins were the difference between winning and losing, and you felt like you earned your victory. There were times when you just had it all, and a Dragon sealed the opponent's fate. Then there were the games where you end the match with all three dragons, Narset, and an opponent's Elspeth on the board under your control, six hard Counterspells in your hand, and you feel like the biggest baddest dude in the room. This deck was simply a delight to win with, and despite the flaws that it may have, I believe it represents the strong control deck that Standard has wanted for the last few seasons. UB always felt a few degrees shy of boiling hot to me, but playing Esper Dragons feels like pure gas.