Hello and welcome once again to my hit syndicated series: Inside Esper Hero with Brian Braun-Duin. I'm your host, Brian Braun-Duin, and you're about to read part 34 of this 37-part series on everyone's favorite Standard deck. And if it isn't your favorite deck, then you can kindly go f...you'll have to pardon me, I'm being informed by my producers that I shouldn't say that in this publication. You'll have to kindly go...friend...request yourself.
Before we begin, I'd like to provide a quick refresher to anyone who skimmed through parts 1–33, a horrific and grave mistake, a colossal error that cannot be forgiven or rectified, but nonetheless one that I'm sure many made.
Esper Hero is a midrange deck based around it's titular card, Hero of Precinct One, which is sometimes the worst card in the deck.
And with that refresher, let's deep dive right into the meat of this episode.
As many of you know, I'm a one trick pony. I have exactly one trick, and that trick is to throw Esper Hero as my deck choice week in and week out. However, I've heard that you can teach an old pony new tricks, and while that trick never really seems to mean playing a different deck, it does seem to often mean changing the list to match the ever-changing landscape of Standard.
I've been playing basically nothing but Esper Hero for the past five weeks straight now. Standard has evolved and changed over that period of time, but what has (surprisingly) not changed is that Esper Hero remains one of the best decks in the format.
However, we have to constantly update the list to keep pace with the changing metagame. The lists of Esper Hero that are good now don't match up with what was good before, and next week's list of Esper Hero, which we will cover in part 35 of 37 of this syndicated series, will be different yet.
I'm going to start with my previous list, talk a bit about Martin Muller's version of the deck, talk about my current list, and then where I would move forward from there with Esper Hero.
This is my previous list, but I'm using it as a point of reference for how the format has evolved.
For those who aren't aware, the Magic Pro League is currently involved in five weeks of weekly league play for each competitor. The 32 players are split into four divisions of eight players and each player plays everyone else in their division. That adds up to seven matches, with the winners of each division playing for an automatic advancement to the Top 16 of the next Arena Mythic Championship in Las Vegas in June.
Each week the competitors submit a new decklist (hah!) before they know who their opponent will be or what their opponent's decklist will be for that particular week. Some weeks involve multiple matches. I've submitted, believe it or not, Esper Hero for every single week of league play. I'm currently 4-1 with two weeks remaining and tied for first in my division, the Pearl division, so Esper Hero has worked out for me pretty well.
I'll give you one guess what I submitted for the last two weeks of gameplay. First hint: It was Esper Hero. There will be no second hints.
The above list was the list I submitted for the previous week of play, but I no longer believe it to be an optimal version of the deck. At the time, I built this list to have resiliency against other midrange and control decks and have no dead cards, like Hostage Taker, against decks like Nexus of Fate or the various control strategies.
Since then a number of new decks have kind of sprung up to take over the format. The big thing for me about the format is that mana producing creatures like Llanowar Elves, Paradise Druid and Incubation Druid are back in a big way.
There are three-, four-, and even five-color Command the Dreadhorde decks that utilize Paradise Druid for ramp and fixing. These Four-Color Dreadhorde decks might be the best decks in the format.
There are a variety of U/G strategies that sometimes even use all 12 of these creatures alongside Nissa, Who Shakes the World to ramp into big effects. One deck ramps into Mass Manipulation, the other into Nexus of Fate. Both utilize Hydroid Krasis with all the extra mana to provide a huge threat and card draw rolled into one.
Even Golgari strategies are using Paradise Druid and Llanowar Elves to speed their way into Casualties of War and Carnage Tyrant.
Gruul, while different from these other decks, is also making a big resurgence based around Llanowar Elves and occasionally even Paradise Druid.
To me, this signifies two things:
The first is that Hostage Taker is great again. Hostage Taker is great against every one of these decks except Golgari, especially since a lot of these strategies lack any way to really kill a Hostage Taker, and even if they steal Hostage Taker with Mass Manipulation or Entrancing Melody you still get to play the card from underneath it.
The second is that these decks all rely on the snowball effect. Nissa, Who Shakes the World is a snowball card. If a Nissa, Who Shakes the World deck can play Nissa ahead of the curve and get a few turns with her in play, they gain too many advantages and get too far ahead for an opponent to really ever come back. It's called snowballing, reminiscent of a small ball of snow rolling down a mountain while growing in size. If you don't stop it early, it becomes too hard to ever stop it.
The same concept is true of the Command the Dreadhorde deck. If they get to play interactive Magic with you with their planeswalkers while they gain life from Wildgrowth Walker or Interplanar Beacon, the game starts to spiral out of control. You might be able to weather the storm of their first Command the Dreadhorde, but when it gets back a Tamiyo, Collector of Tales who uses her -3 ability to get back Command the Dreadhorde, then you have to be ready for them to do it all over again, as early as the very next turn.
Previously, Ugin, the Ineffable was a great card in the Esper Hero deck, because people were all about these various 20+ planeswalker decks like Jeskai Planeswalkers or Esper Planeswalkers and Ugin, the Ineffable could kill planeswalkers, Experimental Frenzy and the like while also offering the ability to provide a steady stream of creatures to pressure future planeswalkers or generate card advantage when combat interaction mattered.
When the game is about grinding, then Ugin, the Ineffable is king. When the game is no longer about grinding, but about who can snowball out of control the quickest or go way over the top, like a lot of these U/G decks or Command the Dreadhorde decks are trying to do, then Ugin, the Ineffable costs too much mana and has too small of an effect to be worth it.
Esper Hero doesn't snowball, it grinds the opponent to a pulp with repeat advantages, either from the kind of virtual card advantage that Thief of Sanity and Hero of Precinct One provide or with actual card advantage from cards like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Elite Guardmage, or Ugin, the Ineffable. Trying to grind through decks that go over the top or decks that snowball can be an uphill battle, but I actually think Esper Hero has the tools to do both effectively.
If it didn't, I wouldn't still be playing the deck.
I'm sorry, my producers are telling me to cut back on the lying.
So, yes. Yes I would still be playing this deck even if it sucked. But thankfully it doesn't! I wouldn't be winning with it if it did. And winning I am. And that's not a lie. Inside Esper Hero with Brian Braun-Duin, a syndicated series, is dedicated to bringing you only truth in journalism.
Beating decks that try to snowball and go over the top involves a two-pronged approach. The first is to disrupt their early game to keep them off balance and unable to get started how they want to. The second is to cheaply counter or interact with their big cards at a cost advantage once they finally muster up the resources to deploy them.
I'm going to introduce a version of the deck that Martin Muller played last weekend to make day two of the MTG Arena MCQ by going 8-1.
This is an extremely innovative take on the deck. Martin embraced both of these tenets against the snowball decks. He has a lot of cheap interaction to both keep the decks off balance and to answer their big cards with cheaper ones, and he cut cards like Thief of Sanity which can take over a game, but can also be a tempo liability. Playing a game with cheap interaction into Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is actually a great plan against these kinds of decks, but unlike traditional Esper Control, he isn't relying on Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to win the game, which is the biggest flaw of that deck.
The biggest innovation by far was using Command the Dreadhorde to beat the Command the Dreadhorde decks. They set up for Command to win the game, and then you just steal it out from under them. With discard and countermagic to deny them their Command the Dreadhorde, it is actually not that hard to play an effective control role against them, and Basilica Bell-Haunt is actually quite strong at holding the ground against explore creatures.
I was blown away when I saw this list; it was brilliant and I'm sad that Martin wasn't able to convert his day one dominance into a Top 16 finish and an invitation to the Arena Mythic Championship.
With that being said, I don't think Martin's list will stand the test of time. For one, it's a heavily metagamed version of this archetype. Basilica Bell-Haunt is a weak card in terms of the power level compared to the rest of the format. Not having Thief of Sanity drastically reduces the power level of the deck. Once people know what you're trying to do it is much easier to combat it, since they aren't going to have a bunch of dead cards in their deck expecting Thief of Sanity, which you don't have.
That takes us to my current list.
The main changes from my previous list are that I got Hostage Taker back into my maindeck, where it has greatly overperformed. I didn't have the strength to cut Ugin, the Ineffable, although I think it probably shouldn't be here anymore. I cut Mortify and Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord from the list. Mortify was too expensive for its effect. Oath of Kaya was more impactful, as the life gain and versatility of killing planeswalkers and providing reach is relevant and the interaction with Teferi, Time Raveler is huge. You can use Teferi, Time Raveler to pick up your own Oath of Kaya and draw a card while killing another creature.
Against the snowball decks you simply don't have time to cast Mortify in a lot of games. You need cheaper effects, Like Tyrant's Scorn. Tyrant's Scorn also doubles as a backbreaking effect against cards like Entrancing Melody to get your creature back, and can do pretty sweet things by rebuying Elite Guardmage or Hostage Taker or even sideboard Deputy of Detention at times.
Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord is a great card in grindy matchups. It can tick up on 1 loyalty planeswalkers, gain life to invalidate racing scenarios and make removal spells infuriating with its -X ability. Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord is also extremely loyal, as it ticks up in huge increments and is tough to remove from play. Sometimes the act of attacking Sorin down, especially with Oath of Kaya in play, allows you to just counterattack your opponent for lethal. People often have to ignore Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord for this reason.
The problem is, Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord does almost nothing in matchups where people aren't killing your creatures. When they're ignoring them and going way over the top of what you can do, Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord is pretty worthless. When their planeswalkers are Tamiyo, Collector of Tales, or Nissa, Who Shakes the World, it takes a while to tick those down with trusty Sorin hammering away with 1 point a turn. That "a while" being "never."
I've weakened myself with this list in the mirror match, and against random decks like Esper Control that barely exist anymore in mainstream numbers, but I've improved my game against the various four-color decks, Sultai decks, and the U/G ramp strategies.
There's always a give and take. And it's a given that my takeaways are exactly what you need to master Esper Hero, or else my name isn't Brian Braun-Duin and this isn't Inside Esper Hero with Brian Braun-Duin. But it is my name. And this is that syndicated series. Looks like you came to the right pl…
I'm sorry, I'm being told by my producers to keep my massive ego in check. Their words not mine. I apologize to all my loyal readers. I'll tone it down. Not too much, but some.
One card I want to touch on is Despark. I think maindecking two copies of Despark is absolutely correct right now. It kills almost all the important planeswalkers, and there is a huge uptick in cards like Rekindling Phoenix (hello Gruul, my old friend) and The Immortal Sun, which are both massive problems for this deck. Mono-Red Aggro has even shifted to going all-in on Experimental Frenzy to win games, which makes One card I want to touch on is Despark's stock rise even further.
Plus, Despark plays directly into the plan of playing cheap early interaction to keep snowball decks off balance and then having cheap interaction for when they do land a bigger card. You want to limit them to playing Nissa, Who Shakes the World on turn four or five, not turn three, either through using Thought Erasure to strip important cards from their hand or with Tyrant's Scorn, Oath of Kaya, or Teferi, Time Raveler on their mana creatures. Then once they finally land those cards, you need things like Despark or The Elderspell to clean them up. Alternatively you need to have slowed them down enough that Teferi, Hero of Dominaria can tuck their mana creatures safely away without them easily killing Teferi and advancing their board the next turn, but that's not always an option.
One thing I want to touch on is that I think 26 lands is a must right now for Esper Hero. When a format turns to decks trying to snowball or go over the top, card advantage starts to become a less important aspect of the format, and disrupting their strategy and not falling off tempo becomes way more important. If you miss a land drop early against a snowball deck, that might be the opening they need to keep you from ever come back into the game. But if you flood out some as the game goes long, that often doesn't matter if you've disrupted their strategy. Snowball decks often have a lot of bad cards that are dedicated to building their foundations. So while you might flood out some with 26 lands, they're going to be drawing Llanowar Elves on turn seven too, and it doesn't matter if you flood some if you have stopped their big play (or at least rendered it less effective).
Let's talk about Elite Guardmage. Martin Muller played Basilica Bell-Haunt, but I think Bell-Haunt is simply a bad card and Elite Guardmage is a good one. Guardmage does so much in the format right now. It chip shots down planeswalkers, particularly Teferi, Time Raveler, as your opponent doesn't want to bounce your Elite Guardmage. It's very good at attacking planeswalkers thanks to its evasion. Guardmage also doesn't get Shocked and doesn't die to Cry of the Carnarium, which is important in a deck where eight of your creatures do die to those two cards. It's an extremely potent combo in some games with Tyrant's Scorn or Teferi, Time Raveler to churn through the deck.
The problem with Basilica Bell-Haunt is three-fold. One is that it's a ground creature, so it can get invalidated in combat a lot, especially when it comes to pressuring planeswalkers. The second is that having your opponent discard a card is a much less versatile ability than drawing one. Sometimes your opponent has no cards in hand and sometimes you actually benefit their strategy by having them discard a card, such as against Nullhide Ferox or Command the Dreadhorde. Drawing a card "always works" with the exception of when you're facing down Narset, Parter of Veils. The third problem is that Basilica Bell-Haunt is really hard to cast sometimes, a problem that Elite Guardmage doesn't suffer from.
Elite Guardmage is kind of a hedge card in some ways. It's kind of weaker against the green Llanowar Elves strategies. You don't beat those decks with card advantage, but by matching their tempo and disrupting them early and often. Elite Guardmage isn't great in snowball matchups, except for later in the game to lock things up and hammer it home. However, Guardmage is exceptional in basically every other matchup, which makes it a perfect card to bridge the gap. I made it clear how missing land drops is basically game over in this deck, and having Teferi, Time Raveler on three and Elite Guardmage on four makes sure you miss those land drops less often, even though those aren't always the cards you'd want to play on those turns.
The last thing I want to touch on is sequencing and the role of Hero of Precinct One.
There was a point a few weeks ago when Hero of Precinct One was the worst card in the deck and I sided it out often. Those days are long behind us. Hero of Precinct One is at an all-time high right now in this format. It's insanely good vs. Command the Dreadhorde, the various U/G decks, as well as always being a killer against decks like W/U Aggro.
Hero of Precinct One is great against (pretty much) any green deck, especially ones with the explore package of Wildgrowth Walker, Merfolk Branchwalker and Jadelight Ranger. Hero doesn't die that often against those decks and the tokens trade effectively on defense, which is quite important when you need to spend early turns playing cards like Thought Erasure or establishing Thief of Sanity. The tokens also protect Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, which is the most important finisher against green decks. A turn-two Hero of Precinct One, especially on the play, is often just good game against those decks. Sometimes you can even grind through Command the Dreadhorde with Hero and enough quality interaction.
When they stumble, Hero of Precinct One can also proactively take over a game, providing attackers to tear down planeswalkers or lower their life total enough to render Command the Dreadhorde ineffective.
One thing to note, however, is that Hero of Precinct One isn't always a turn-two play. If you can play a Hero of Precinct One on turn two and feel safe that your opponent isn't going to do something that will leave you groaning the next turn, then you can play the Hero. But if you're worried that your opponent is going to Shock it and play a creature or they already have a mana creature in play and could play something dangerous like a Tamiyo, Collector of Tales or even a Nissa, Who Shakes the World then it's often better to play a Thought Erasure or Tyrant's Scorn instead.
Hero of Precinct One is actually still a really good turn four or five play to allow you to "double spell" by playing a Hero plus a cheap multicolor interactive spell on the same turn to both disrupt your opponent and build a board presence. In some matchups like Mono-Red, this is actually the preferred use of Hero of Precinct One, rather than throwing it out to die early.
The long and short of it is that if you can deploy a Hero of Precinct One on turn two safely, you should get excited by the opportunity, since then you can just play normal Magic in subsequent turns and get lots of tokens for your trouble. But there are some games where there is a risk that your opponent can snowball away with the game if you take the turn off to do this, and in those games, it's totally okay to wait on the Hero of Precinct One. You lose "value" that way, but the biggest value is in simply winning the game.I'll leave you with a decklist I'm considering, but haven't tested yet.
Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord returns as a sideboard card for grindy matchups, and with an increase in creatures like Hostage Taker, Elite Guardmage and Deputy of Detention, the -X won't be dead nearly as often.
Fewer Thief of Sanity and no Ugin, the Ineffable means fewer clunky draws where you can get tempo'd out by having too many expensive cards or getting your Thief bounced by Teferi, Time Raveler, and four copies of Elite Guardmage makes Command the Dreadhorde more powerful.
This list will likely be weaker against Mono-Red Aggro without Ugin, the Ineffable to blow up Experimental Frenzy.
An extra Dovin's Veto in the sideboard is a nod to the rise in decks that don't play Teferi, Time Raveler to ruin the card with its static effect. It can also be good against Teferi, Time Raveler decks when you can generally attack and kill their Teferi easily, especially if they also have big spells and effects you want to counter, like Nissa, Who Shakes the World, Mass Manipulation, Command the Dreadhorde and so on. More cheap interaction and more two-mana instants to pair with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is never a bad thing.
I want to give a big round of thanks to everyone who joined us for this riveting episode of Inside Esper Hero with Brian Braun-Duin. Please tune in to part 35 for groundbreaking topics like "Should we maindeck that third Hostage Taker?" or "Is Enter the God-Eternals worth it or worthless?" You wouldn't want to miss…
Sorry, my producers are telling me that you might actually want to miss it. They're fired. They're all fired. Inside Esper Hero with Brian Braun-Duin is the best syndicated publication available today. I'm Brian Braun-Duin, and I would never lie to you.
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