ell, the good news is that the deck I played in Cincinnati was only one card off the main decklist of both decks in the finals. The bad news is that I wasn't actually in the finals myself, and in fact lost to Kyle Boggemes in the Swiss (who eventually won), although I did finish 11–4, enough for a Top 64. It was a good weekend to play Esper, and to quote Paulo Vitor, "Reaaallly?"
Wait, wrong quote.
"I think by this point Esper is the accepted 'most important deck in the format.' It might not necessarily be the best deck (though in my opinion it is, if not by much), but it is the deck that you have to keep in mind as you are entering a tournament."
—Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa
That quote really encapsulates where Esper sits right now. Standard hasn't had a slam-dunk best deck in a while, but Esper is the deck you most have to pay attention to, even if you don't end up playing it. You know it's going to be out there in large numbers (it was the most-played deck on Day Two of Cincinnati if you count WU control, which I would), it tends to crush unprepared opponents, and the things you need to do to beat Esper are often different than what you want to do against the rest of the field. In fact, that's part of Esper's charm (that and drawing two cards). Cards that are good against Esper are often fairly narrow, and even though Esper is popular, it's not so popular that it's worth playing too many main-deck Negates or Rakdos's Returns or the like.
Again, I'm certainly not advocating "Esper or bust," but you need to consider how any potential list you might play will fare against Esper, how that affects other decks in the tournament, and that people just love casting Sphinx's Revelations.
Let's take a quick look at this week's Esper list:
Grand Prix Cincinnati 2014 – Standard - Top 8
Brad played the same main deck as Kyle, with just one less Syncopate and one more Last Breath (and, for reference, I played what Kyle did minus one Elspeth and plus one Last Breath).
As I said last week, I was deciding mainly between WU and Esper, and I imagine that Kyle and Brad settled on Esper for many of the same reasons I ended up on it.
This sort of deck already wants more than just the four Temple of Enlightenment, and once you are at playing 8+ Temples, it'd be a shame to turn down all this free black mana. Add to that the huge edge Thoughtseize gives you in control mirrors and how awesome Doom Blade is against many of the current threats (green monsters of various shapes and sizes, plus Stormbreath Dragon), and the decision to play Esper seems like the correct one.
The other thing I want to note is how awesome some of Esper's sideboard options are. When you are playing three colors and twenty-seven lands, you have the sphinx's share of cards to choose from, my favorite of which are the following:
Kyle played Specters and Angels, Brad played Blind Obedience, and I played both. The creatures are especially sweet, for multiple reasons. The first is that siding in creatures out of a creatureless deck is always powerful. Your opponent's first instinct is to take out removal, which gives your creatures free rein. Even if opponents don't take out their removal, there are three common scenarios that can result:
- You draw a creature and they don't draw removal. Hooray!
- They draw removal and you don't draw a creature. Also hooray!
- They draw removal and you draw a creature. Less good, but still generally just a one-for-one trade (although it's much less painful when it's your three-mana Specter being blown up instead of a five-mana Archangel).
Given that two of the three scenarios are good for you and the third isn't terrible, siding in creatures seems pretty sweet. Where it most commonly goes wrong is when you are playing against a deck that has so much removal that it wouldn't be able to side it all out anyway, because now you are turning your opponent's dead cards into live ones, but that's not all that common.
The reason I specifically like Nightveil Specter is that it comes in versus almost everything, and that's not even an exaggeration. I wouldn't side it in against RG or Jund Monsters, but I bring it in against all the other commonly faced decks. It's great in the mirror, great against Mono-Blue, good against Mono-Black, and playable against Burn/Mono-Red. That sort of flexibility is awesome, and given that you aren't even paying a huge price in power, which is normally the tradeoff, I think it would be insane not to play Nightveil Specter in Esper right now. We played it in Block, at PT Dragon's Maze last year, and it was pretty sweet.
Aside, since #mtgstories have been popular lately:
During PT Dragon's Maze, I found myself facing down Bant Control with my Esper deck. I had sided in Nightveil Specter, but was in a position where I was going to be forced to Supreme Verdict it away because of all the random green monsters my opponent had in play. I attacked first, and happened to hit nothing other than Rootborn Defenses. Given that I had a ton of lands in play, I cast Rootborn Defenses, made Specter indestructible, and Wrathed away the rest of the board. Specter ended up easily winning me that game, attacking five more times and hitting a bunch of relevant cards.
The other creature I like in current Esper's sideboard is Archangel of Thune. While you might be tempted to say that it's a result of my obsession with the card in Melira Pod, the truth is that Archangel is just awesome. It's a huge threat if left unchecked, is almost impossible to race, and helps against matchups that are otherwise very tough (any red deck). I like it more than Blood Baron of Vizkopa in a large part due to Lifebane Zombie. Astute readers will point out that Lifebane Zombie hits both creatures, and that is very true. What I more specifically mean is that the popularity of Lifebane Zombie in Black Devotion decks makes me want neither of these cards against them, so the protection from black is actually not that relevant. Given that pro-black isn't a selling point (and that pro-white never was), I think Archangel of Thune is vastly superior to Blood Baron. It's better against Mono-Blue, better at blocking in general, and even races Blood Baron in the Esper mirror or against White-Black, if it comes down to that.
It is necessary for me to go back to the siding-in-removal point, and mention that if this becomes a popular Esper sideboard plan, Archangel of Thune might Thune find itself replaced by noncreature options. If your opponent keeps in removal and kills Nightveil Specter, you didn't lose much. If your opponent does the same against your five-drop, things go much worse for you, and once Archangel becomes expected, that becomes much more likely. Even if people know Nightveil is coming, I'm not too worried, but I don't want to play Archangel in such a field.
The last card I specifically wanted to call out is Blind Obedience. While I haven't always been a fan of blindly adding this card to your control sideboard in the past, it drastically overperformed for me. I'd still just play two because of diminishing returns, but I'd definitely play those two. It's awesome against your two toughest matchups (Red decks and Monsters decks), gaining you a ton of life against Red by stopping Ash Zealot, Chandra's Phoenix, and two or three burn spells over the course of the game, and protecting your life total and Planeswalkers against Xenagos, Mistcutter Hydra, and Stormbreath Dragon in Monsters.
I know that part of the reason that Burn has been growing in popularity is the Sphinx's Revelation matchup, but if Revelation players come prepared with Blind Obedience, Archangel of Thune, and a good mix of removal/cheap counters, Burn is going to have to adapt or die. I even had one Fiendslayer Paladin, and sideboards like mine are what Burn has to expect these days. Burn is definitely a metagame deck, and when the time isn't right, it's usually better to switch decks until the heat is off.
The rest of Esper's sideboard usually is (and should be), a mix of counters, removal, and discard. Just for the sake of completeness, here's my full sideboard (and you can see Kyle's and Brad's here).
LSV's GP Cincinnati Sideboard
I'd definitely recommend Esper again, and don't think I'd change much about my list. The sideboard is something you want to update based on whatever the current metagame is, and by the time GP Phoenix comes around, I'd imagine some of the slots should change. I'll be doing commentary for that GP, so figuring out the last few sideboard slots is an exercise I'll leave to others.
The Rest of the Top 8
Esper wasn't the only deck to make Top 8 (although with three, it was the most represented deck):
The only one of the top four decks that didn't crack Top 8 was any kind of Monsters deck, with Black Devotion and Mono-Blue putting in two and one copy respectively. Naya Hexproof and Mono-Black Aggro are definitely niche decks, but potentially well-positioned ones, and there are advantages to doing something a little different from everyone else.
Expanding our view to the Top 16, we have the following set of decks:
There are a lot of Swamps and Sphinx's Revelations running around here. It looks like the top four decks really should just be the top two, with Sphinx's Revelation decks and Underworld Connections decks easily claiming those spots. It's an interesting spot for the metagame to be in, that's for sure. Both of the top two decks are vulnerable to one of the 3rd-/4th-place decks, but playing either the 3rd- or 4th-place deck leaves you open to the other big deck, making it potentially a bad time to pick up Mono-Blue Devotion or Jund Monsters.
Mono-Blue wants to play against Black Devotion but really doesn't want to play against Esper, which might be the most lopsided matchup in current Standard (outside of 4-Skullcrack Mono-Red against Turbo-Fog).
Jund Monsters wants to play against Esper but would rather not play against Mono-Black or Mono-Blue.
Esper and Mono-Black don't honestly care that much what they play against, although they'd rather avoid Monsters and Mono-Blue, respectively. Neither Esper nor Mono-Black have any matchups as bad as Monsters or Blue have, although they do have much bigger targets on their backs at this point.
Given all this, what are my recommendations?
- Play Esper (with Nightveil Specter). You really can't go wrong here, at least not until the metagame shifts more, which I do expect it to try and do. Esper is resilient enough that I doubt it will be pushed out completely, but things might get more hostile toward it.
- Play Black. There hasn't really been a bad time to play black since Pro Tour Theros, as the deck is so well-rounded. Now is as good a time as any, and I might start with Eric Froehlich's list from the Top 16 of PT Cincinnati for a look at a really good take on Black Devotion (as someone playing Esper, that might be the worst matchup of all the black lists I've ever seen).
- Don't play Mono-Blue Devotion. With Esper's popularity where it is, it seems insane to sign up for bad matchups over and over again.
- Consider playing Jund Monsters. I haven't played this deck as much as others, but I know from the Esper side of things that it can be very tough. If you test the deck and are happy with its Black Devotion matchup, this seems like a good way to attack our Sphinx Overlords (who I've gladly welcomed).
- Play something niche. I'd count Naya Hexproof, Mono-Black Aggro, Burn, and Dredge in this category. If you get one of these lists to perform well against two of the four biggest decks, break even against one, and be an underdog against the last, it's probably worth playing. Just make sure that you are performing well against Esper and Mono-Black, and are an underdog in the Mono-Blue matchup.
- Play RWU Control. Jason Ascalon made Top 16 of GP Cincy with a deck I haven't seen running around for a while:
Grand Prix Cincinnati 2014 – Standard - Top 16
With one small change I think you can be confident of in the Esper matchup, and that change is to swap the 1 Counterflux and 4 Dissolve numbers, making it 4 Counterflux and 1 Dissolve. Once you have four Counterfluxes, you can legitimately counter all of Esper's win conditions, and just get to ignore everything else it does. The rest of the numbers might need tweaking, but I tested RWU Control a while back and liked all of its matchups except the Monsters matchup, so if Esper is on the rise and Monsters isn't, I'd run this.
My next stop is the Magic Online World Championship, followed by Grand Prix Phoenix the week after, both of which I'll be watching from the commentator's booth. Rest assured that I'll be bringing you tales of whatever impressed me most!
Luis Scott-Vargas plays, writes, and makes videos about Magic. He has played on the Pro Tour for almost a decade, and between that and producing content for ChannelFireball, often has his hands full (of cards).