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PV’s Playhouse – Esper at Grand Prix Buenos Aires

Hello!

Around a week before I left for GP Buenos Aires, I was pretty much locked on Esper. It was a deck I’d played a lot and it seemed to be doing very well across the globe, so I saw no reason to not play it. I then decided to play some Magic Online Daily Events to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, to figure out which sideboard cards I liked, and so on. I wasn’t extremely successful in those, and games didn’t seem very easy from my point of view, so I thought maybe I’d try some other option.

The first deck I tried was Jund monsters—not unlike the one that won the GP. I quickly established that the deck wasn’t very good because it was slow, clunky, and you needed to draw your cards in the right order—I’ve never been a fan of a somewhat aggressive deck that plays over thirty mana sources, and this was one of those.

Next, I tried Mono-Black. It also quickly became apparent that Mono-Black had actual zero good matchups in the format. You wouldn’t get demolished by any of the tier 1 decks, but you weren’t slaughtering anyone either, and most new decks would be built with the intention of beating Mono-Black in mind, resulting in a field where you’re either a 52% favorite or a 65% dog.

After that came Naya. My friend had a Naya list built he liked that was more controlling, with Archangel of Thune to combo with Courser—it seemed decent. After playing it more, though, it turned out the mana was bad, the cards weren’t great, and it seemed like I could never beat an Elspeth, so I gave up on it.

Then, I tried Burn. I’m not a fan of burn decks in general, but the deck did seem well positioned, so I thought I should give it a try. The second time my opponent played Desecration Demon and I drew a Shock on an empty board was enough for me to give up on that too. I think Burn is good, I really do, but it’s just not the deck for me, I can’t stand drawing cards that do nothing.

Then, Mono-Blue—originally with a white splash. The white splash proved not to be worth it. Detention Sphere is a great card, but Ephara isn’t, and the mana in the deck is actually not great if you add white—you have so many double-blue cards that shock lands punish you, and having lands that come into play tapped also punishes you because you use all your mana almost every turn. If I could reasonably run four Detention Spheres and about 12 sources I would, but I don’t think 10 sources with two that hurt you a bit and two that hurt you a lot is enough to justify it.

The rest of the deck, however, didn’t feel bad. I tried straight Mono-Blue and liked it more than I had liked any other deck so far, so I decided I was going to play that. I hadn’t played it much before, but it didn’t seem to be a particularly hard deck, so I figured I’d manage.

At this point, I also realized that I could never beat Esper. Whenever I played against it, people would Syncopate and Dissolve all my threats, wrath me, and then play a big Revelation and win. Whenever I played Esper, however, I wouldn’t even have three untapped lands on turn three to play Dissolve; I’d have to shock myself to play any spell, and my last card in hand would be a Last Breath instead of a Revelation. I told myself that those people I played against were just lucky and this was not the normal way the games played.

I flew to Buenos Aires on Friday, and the flight took less than two hours. The event was very far from the international airport, though, so it took me a while to get to the apartment we had rented; the usual time is about one hour, but it was raining a little and there was traffic, so it took me almost two hours. Then, we tried to go register.

By the time we tried to get a cab, the small drizzle that had greeted me on my arrival had become a strong downpour. For about half an hour we tried to get a taxi, but none would stop, so we went back to our apartment and tried calling one. We did that for roughly one hour—all the lines were busy, all the time. We decided to give it another try and went downstairs again. Eventually we found out that there had been a bus strike, which meant we were probably not going to get a taxi anytime soon, and we conceded defeat, eventually managing to get a hold of someone and asking them to register the four of us. I think we actually came out ahead in the exchange—many people who managed to get to the event found themselves trapped there, without a way out. One group of people actually had to send someone to the airport so that they could rent a car and then come pick everyone else up!

Eventually, we managed to meet up with the other players who were staying in the same building we were. One of them was going to play Mono-Blue, so we talked a little about it. He told me that the sideboard plan against UW/Esper was very bad, and that he was worried because he had seen a lot of UW in the trials, but he was going to play Mono-Blue anyway because he had been playing it forever. I wasn’t in that position—I didn’t really have to play Mono-Blue. After analyzing the sideboard some more and realizing that only five or so of the cards are actually playable, I decided to just go back to playing Esper. At least I’d know what to do, what hands to keep and what to side out. Besides, I kept losing to it—that certainly meant the deck was at least playable, even if I had not been winning much when I played it myself (small sample size etc.). I looked at some lists online and made some changes that I liked, and ended up with this:

Some Explanations:

Esper versus UW: I think UW is a good deck, but I like Esper more. The scry lands are really good, and they make the black splash basically free. If you play UW and play, say, 8-10 scry lands, then you really should be playing Esper instead. Without black, you become much worse in the mirror, since you don’t have Thoughtseize, and you have issues with certain creatures like Mistcutter Hydra, Archangel of Thune, and Obzedat. In return, you gain a faster mana base, which is important against the red decks that have been doing well lately. It’s close, but I think the advantages of having black, though small, outweigh the costs, which are even smaller.

Aetherling versus Elixir: I’ve seen lists with both, and I greatly favor Aetherling. Elixir is going to be better in some spots, sure, but Elixir is often just not a real card, whereas Aetherling is. In many of the matches, you play removal, counterspell, Wrath, and then find yourself with six or seven lands and one card in hand. If that card is Aetherling, you win the game. If that card is Elixir, it does nothing. In those scenarios, Aetherling is another Sphinx’s Revelation, or another Elspeth that’s harder to deal with. Aetherling is also better due to time considerations, but I’d play Aetherling over Elixir even if I had infinite time.

0 Azorius Charm: Three Esper decks Top 8’d the GP in Australia, and they all cut some Azorius Charms—two people played 2 and one played 0. I think that, with twelve scry lands, you don’t need it and you often don’t have the time to play it. It’s not a bad card by any means, and if you have room you can play two, but I’d rather have better removal.

0 Divination: Divination is the worst card in Magic. Your lands all come into play tapped already, you can’t afford to delay yet another turn. Please do not play Divination.

1 Revoke Existence: Revoke doesn’t have a ton of targets, but the ones it does are the ones you really want to kill—Thassa and Connections, mainly. It will find targets in other matchups—Courser, Spear of Heliod, other Gods, Detention Sphere—but Revoke Existance is there for its power, and not for its versatility. It will sometimes hurt you, but it will help you way more often. I think you should play one.

1 Negate: My rationale for Negate was that I wanted something against spells that come down on turn three before Dissolve (Domri, Connections), as well as a card for the mirror. I could have played another Thoughtseize, but I am not a big fan of Thoughtseize in this deck; it’s fine, but the deck doesn’t have many black sources and it doesn’t go well with the counterspells plan. When you play a counterspell, you make them waste a turn—you advance the game by a turn, which is really good. You’re not trying to exhaust all their resources by countering all of their cards, you’re trying to get to a point where whatever it is they are casting no longer matters, because you’re casting an Elspeth or a big Revelation. With Thoughtseize, you attack their resources, but not their tempo—they just play another 4-drop instead, for example. Negate was my solution for those cards that theoretically fit with the plan of the deck.

In the end, however, the card wasn’t very good and I would not play it maindeck again. I think you can switch it for a Thoughtseize, for a Syncopate, for any removal spell, and even for a 3rd Mutavault.

2 Last Breath, 2 Doom Blade: I like four removal spells and I think a mix of these is best. Ultimate Price is good, but it doesn’t kill Mutavault and I really want to be able to kill Mutavault. Last Breath is worse now that some black players play Lifebane over Specter, but it’s still very good against Mono-Blue and it still kills Vault, Rat, Voice of Resurgence and so on.

0 Blood Baron, 0 Nightveil Specter: I used to like creatures in Esper, but no longer. The main issue is that people always end up leaving some removal against you. Some mono-black decks have four Devour Fleshes and the mirror can’t physically take them all out, and I don’t like having to rely on Baron to win the game for me. The second issue is that everyone plays Lifebane Zombie now and having your trump be taken by a card that they were going to play anyway makes you feel very stupid. I can see having Blood Baron for other matchups, but I would not board it in against any Lifebane Zombie deck, so I don’t think it’s worth it. If you want a creature to gain some life, I think Archangel of Thune is better.

2 Blind Obedience: I think this is the best card against red. Every time they play Chandra’s Phoenix, Ash Zealot, or Viashino Firstblade it gains you some life, and then the extort ability gets you out of burn range, somewhat. Against Monsters, it stops Dragon, Hydra, and Xenagos Tokens from attacking, but more than protecting your life total it protects your planeswalkers—you can safely -2 a Jace knowing that a Xenagos token isn’t going to kill it, and you can play Elspeth knowing it’s safe from Stormbreath Dragon.

1 Fiendslayer Paladin: I wanted something against red and I think it’s the best card. If you expect more red, play more of these.

My day 1 went like this:

Round 4: Mono-Black splash white 2-0
Round 5: Mono-Blue 1-2
Round 6: Mono-Blue 2-0
Round 7: Mono-Blue 2-0
Round 8: Mono-Black splash red 2-0
Round 9: Mono-Blue 2-0

Round 10: Mono-Blue 2-0
Round 11: Mono-Black 2-0
Round 12: GW 2-0
Round 13: Mono-Blue 2-0
Round 14: BR control 1-2
Round 15: ID

Top 8: BR control 2-0
Top 4: RGb Monsters 1-2

Here you can see that I got super lucky with pairings—I got paired against one of my best matchups six times, though I did lose once due to mana problems in two games. I also almost strictly got paired against decks against which Revoke Existence is good, so that might have biased me towards how good the card actually is. In the Top 8, I think I got paired against a very good matchup (even though he beat me in the Swiss), and then a matchup that I consider to be slightly unfavorable, though it really depends on how many planeswalkers they draw.

Also interesting to note that I actually won all my matches 2-0 and lost all my matches 2-1, giving me an overall game record in this tournament of 23-6, or roughly 80%, which is pretty insane considering how easy it is to lose a game of Magic.

I was overall very happy with the deck—I’d remove a Negate for basically anything else, and then possibly play more Paladins depending on the metagame you expect, but I wouldn’t change any other card.

Now, for the matchups:

Mono-Blue

This matchup is easy. Their three best cards are Thassa, Mutavault, and Bident, but the rest of their deck is very soft to what your deck is doing. It’s worth taking damage early on to make sure they can’t stick a Thassa, and it’s worth  saving your Detention Spheres for that as much as you can. Thassa is the one card in their deck that beats Elspeth, so I like bringing in one Needle when I’m on the draw (since on the play I think Dissolve is good enough). You are primarily going to name Mutavault and maybe a Jace, but Thassa is good too, and you can also name Frostburn Weird, Judge’s Familiar, and Bident of Thassa!

After board, their deck slows down a bit, which I’m not convinced is bad for you. If they have a bunch of counterspells, they will have no pressure. They are not going to win by out-controlling the control deck, so let them try. If they have Jaces, you can usually deal with them—you still have six counterspells and four Spheres. if they have the five-mana Jace, bring Needle on the play too.

On the play:

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On the draw:

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Mirror

This matchup is about two things—Aetherling and decking. It used to be more about Aetherling, but now that everyone runs around six counterspells, it becomes harder to resolve him (though it also becomes easier to fight for him if you resolve a big Revelation and they don’t). Basically don’t go drawing your entire deck if you aren’t sure you can win a counter war, and don’t go wasting counterspells on meaningless things.

Sideboarding is highly dependent on what you think they are bringing in. If you are sure they have no creatures, then cut all removal, and so on. You definitely want all your Thoughtseizes and counterspells, and you shave creature removal and some Detention Spheres.

Mono-Black

Connections is their best card game one, and Specter is their second best—luckily some people don’t even play Specter anymore. If they don’t resolve a Connections it’s very hard to lose the game, since you will eventually topdeck your way out of whatever they are doing. If they resolve a connections and you can’t Detention Sphere or Revoke it, then your best bet is to try to race them with Elspeth or Aetherling, though that’s not a good deal for you. In general, I try not to expose my Jaces to Hero’s Downfall before I can -2; normally, you play Jace, +1, then you deal with their creatures next turn, but against Mono-Black I like to deal with their creatures to try to play Jace into an empty board.

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RG(b) Monsters

Their most important cards are Domri and Xenagos. They can usually only play one spell a turn, so if you can deal with one spell a turn eventually you will play your better spells (which is why I like counterspells more than Thoughtseize in general). You will lose if you get into a spot where you’re so behind that you are forced to tap out to react to them on your turn every turn, and then at some point your last two cards in hand will be a Syncopate and a Dissolve that you never had the opportunity to cast; if you stay ahead of them and use those counterspells first, then you will win.

On the play:

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On the draw:

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Burn

This matchup is not great, but it really depends on their draws. Sometimes, it’s going to look absolutely impossible to win because they will either play a bunch of Mutavaults/Chandra’s Phoenix and you won’t have a way to get rid of them, or, more likely, they’ll play a bunch of burn that you will have no answer to. The best way to win is to preserve your life total a lot, kill any creature however you can, and then try to apply some pressure as you counter a burn spell or two. Also try saving Last Breath, Detention Sphere, or Syncopate for Chandra’s Phoenix. Some people have more creatures than others, and some sideboard in a lot more, so keep that in mind when boarding. Normally, if I don’t expect a lot of creatures other than Viashino, Phoenix and Zealot, I’d do:

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If you expect more (Satyr, Reckoner?), then you can keep some Verdicts in for some Dissolves. Basically the fewer creatures they have, the better counterspells become.

That’s what I have for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Before I leave, I’d like to give props to all the people who lent me cards—Antonio from the store Porto Livre, Bruno Muller, Xuxa and Abud, thanks a lot!

– PV

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