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Chasing Victory: Deckbuilding and Esper Lark

After failing miserably with Swans at the Indy 5K, I decided I wanted to try something a little different for the Ogre Games Lotus tournament. I wanted a deck that was powerful, and by extension good against random strategies. No matter the matchup, I wanted to have a shot against everything from Doran to 5cc to Blightning. A bold goal, I know, but I figured that something with the full amount of Wrath of Gods could get it done.

Once I decided I wanted four Wrath of Gods, I looked at what decks would have a lot of synergy with them. While I explored a couple different options, Reveillark seemed like the best one by far. Not only that, but Pro Tour Champion Charles Gindy had been telling me to try Reveillark for weeks. While our reasons for playing Lark were probably different, it didn’t change the fact that Gindy was right: Lark is a good deck right now.

Deck building is something that I find relatively easy. I suppose deck building is probably the wrong term, as I rarely “invent” new decks, but rather tune existing decks or strategies to deal with the problems at hand. It seems as if a lot people select an arbitrary number and decide that is how many of a certain card they are going to play. You can bet that no matter what deck I play, what the numbers are, I have a reason for every 4, 3, 2, and 1 on my decklist.

A four of is a card that I want to draw early and often, and don’t mind drawing in multiples. These are either cards that are a focal point of my deck or just simply great cards. Examples include Bitterblossom, Cryptic Command, or Tarmogoyf.

A three-of is something that is probably as powerful as what you would play as a four-of, but might be slow or awkward to cast. They could be legendary or bad in multiples. Examples of this include Ajani Goldmane in WB tokens, when they are the fifth, sixth, and seventh Glorious Anthems, Cloudthresher in a control deck, or Seismic Assault in a Loam deck.

A two-of is generally something that you want to draw one of per game, as they are probably not good in multiples or only good in certain situations. Good examples of this include Upheaval in old Psychatog decks or finishers like Oona, Queen of the Fae.

A one of could serve any number of purposes. Generally, decks littered with one ofs have some sort of tutor or are either not very tuned. I see a one of as a card that is great when you only draw one, but terrible in multiples. Examples of these include Mirrorweave, Oona’s Grace, in some instances Chrome Mox, and Banefire.

Using this type of guideline, I first decide on a list of cards I could see myself playing, either maindeck or sideboard. After that, I make the easy decisions like what should definitely be a four-of.

Wrath of God: My reason for playing this deck. WOG fits the description of the typical four-of, it’s powerful and something I want to draw in multiples against almost every matchup.

Reveillark: While sometimes slow and unwieldy, it is the central core of my game plan. Some lists play three, but I was going to play four.

Mulldrifter: Obviously great with Reveillark and the main source of card advantage in the deck. I want to draw multiples, therefore it’s a four of.

Sower of Temptation: These are great right now, and was the second card I wanted to play with. While obviously weak against spot removal, if there were a way around that somehow (either by protecting it or overloading their spot removal with awesome dudes) Sower would be a game winner.

I briefly entertained the notion of playing Faeries at the Indy 5K, as turn three Scion, turn four Sower was amazing in several matchups. However, if that exact sequence of events didn’t happen, often Fae wouldn’t be able to overcome a hoard of tokens, or a couple giant green monsters. Fae was very weak in this format without a reset button.

Cryptic Command: While not very synergetic in a deck that was full of four drop sorceries, Cryptic is too good not to play. I could possibly see playing three, but have you ever cast a Cryptic Command? It’s pretty good, especially when you have Wrath of God in your deck. With a deck like Faeries, I would find myself having to use Cryptic Command in Fog mode, but would be drawing dead. When you have Wraths in your deck, Cryptic can buy you the vital draw steps you need to find it. In the end, I chose four.

Fulminator Mage: The final four-of. While I only want about three or so against various aggressive decks (as drawing one to fill your curve and kill the best land they drew, whether it be Treetop Village, Mutavault, or Windbrisk Heights is great, but any after that are fairly weak), I wanted the full amount against 5cc. With four Wraths and four Sowers, my game against 5cc was going to be weaker than normal Lark decks, even though Wrath and Sower are actually decent against modern 5cc decks.

The other three drops like Kitchen Finks and Stillmoon Cavaliers are alright, but Fulminator Mage seemed superior. Mages are recursive with Lark, unlike Finks, and contribute to the overall resource denial game that Lark tends to play. While the other three drops are better in some matchups, Fulminators seemed like they would be better overall.

Almost everyone else has Tidehollow Scullers in their Lark deck, and while I think they are great in certain matchups, they are pretty loose with Wrath of God, so I knew I didn’t want the full amount. After all, I wanted to beat decks that were weak against Wrath, as that was the majority of decks I expected to play against.

I also knew I was going to play 26 lands, as I didn’t want any Mind Stones. The colorless mana doesn’t help me cast very much, and we don’t always get to play Mind Stone into four drop. Instead, Mind Stone usually involves me missing my fourth land drop, and having to pay two mana just to hit it via Mind Stone. I would rather just have lands.

The rest of the list looked something like:

Tidehollow Sculler
Esper Charm
Makeshift Mannequin
Negate
Remove Soul
Terror
Path to Exile
Broken Ambitions
Glen Elendra Archmage
Mind Stone
Jace Beleren
Stillmoon Cavalier
Kitchen Finks

Sideboard

Story Circle
Runed Halo
Pithing Needle
Celestial Purge
Scepter of Fugue
Mind Shatter
Head Games
Negate
Remove Soul
Jace Beleren
Austere Command
Burrenton Forge-Tender
Bottle Gnomes
Flashfreeze
Condemn
Wall of Reverence
Martial Coup

I knew I wanted some spot removal, and as always, I wanted Terror instead of Path to Exile. Tidehollow Sculler is about the only card you can Path and can’t Terror, and I never want to Path something early like Figure of Destiny. I wanted my spot removal to give me time until I could start casting my powerful spells, so in my mind Terror was the best option and it wasn’t close. I already had a lot of pseudo removal with Sower and Wrath, so three Terrors seemed like a decent number.

I also figured that I would need some additional counter magic. Broken Ambitions is the “safe” choice, although I really like how Remove Soul and Negate are so cheap. I believed that I was going to have more problems with non creatures, so I went with Negate. Very few decks have zero things that you want to counter with Negate, so it would almost always be live.

Glen Elendra Archmage was a card I definitely wanted to play with, but didn’t want as four-of. Some lists only have two, but it’s great in almost every matchup, much like Negate, so I decided to play three.

That left me with:

 

And then I had two open slots. I like Makeshift Mannequin a lot and wanted to try those as an instant threat against Faeries and 5cc, but after some quick gold fishing games, I realized that it was just a few too many four drops. In their place I tried a couple Esper Charms, mostly for utility, but I wasn’t happy with those either. At that point, I was trying to figure out the sideboard and what to put in and take out in each matchup, and knew I wanted Tidehollow Scullers. In the end, I just decided to run two of the Scullers main to free up some board space.

Of course, I had to make sure the numbers worked out in each matchup, meaning that I had enough cards I wanted to bring in as I wanted to bring out. Once I messed with the numbers enough to get them right, I decided to just run with the Scullers main.

The mana base was going to be kind of rough, but I used basically the same formula as building my deck. I decide which lands I absolutely wanted four of, which in this case were Arcane Sanctum and Reflecting Pool. I figured I could suppose four or five more comes into play tapped lands, which probably meant Vivid lands. Six or seven filters was the maximum I would play, although I like those lands more than painlands and with 26 lands, odds are I won’t get crappy hands with too many filters. With the remaining slots, I could play a couple painlands and a few of each basic, while being sure I played one of each basic for Path to Exile.

This is what I came up with:

 

I ended up trying one Exotic Orchard because I figured it couldn’t be any worse than a Plains or a Swamp, or will most likely be better than either of those.

The sideboard I played was:

3 Burrenton Forge-Tender: I wanted something extra for Faeries in these slots, but couldn’t think of anything sufficient. I decided that I would beat up on red decks instead, as those seem like a poor choice, but they are probably good against this version of Lark. Bottle Gnomes was a consideration, but they are basically the same thing while Forge-Tenders cost one mana.

3 Jace Beleren: By far the best card against other control decks and Faeries. I wouldn’t want to play blue without this card.

2 Mind Shatter: Another card for 5cc, and probably the best one. Between Tidehollow Scullers and Glen Elendra Archmages, Shatter is surprisingly easy to resolve.

2 Runed Halo: I wanted something to deal with Scepter of Fugue from 5cc or Faeries, and Halo seemed better than Pithing Needle or Celestial Purge, as Halo has other applications. Halo is great against Doran and Figure of Destiny, so that helped cement my decision.

2 Tidehollow Sculler: These completed the package against 5cc.

2 Austere Command: Amazing against WB Tokens while also being Wraths five and six in other matchups like Doran. Definitely worth playing, as sometimes you cast Wrath against WB, but they’ll still have Anthem and Bitterblossom in play, which is very difficult to beat.

1 Terror: Just to supplement the maindeck removal, and as another answer to Mistbind Clique.

When designing the sideboard, I just thought about what I wanted my deck to look like post board in the matchup I was thinking of, and hopefully I could fit in all the cards I wanted. If not, I would look for cards that could fill a similar role in multiple matchups, like Runed Halo.

For example, against Doran/Bant decks I wanted to cut the Negates and Archmages, as I felt like most lists would be playing Brian Robinson’s Pro Tour Top Eight deck, which has very little that I can (or want to) Negate. Archmage is kind of the same thing, although it does protect your important guys from spot removal. Their deck is almost all dudes, so obviously more removal would be good, preferably sweepers or efficient spot removal. Tidehollow Sculler needed to get the axe as well, so I was looking to bring out the Negates, Scullers, and an Archmage if I could. With my board I would be able to bring in two Halo, two Austere, and the Terror, so mission accomplished.

Against 5cc, I wanted to cut Terrors, all of the Sowers, and two of the Wraths. Generally, I would be able to deal with all of their stuff except for a couple of walls or a Broodmate Dragon. In that case, I would want a Wrath to get rid of their remaining guys and probably bring a couple of my guys back via Reveillark. From that point, it would be very easy to win.

If I didn’t have those Wraths, I would have wait until I had enough guys to alpha strike them a few turns in a row or until I had a few Cryptic Commands, which might take too long. Wrath just ended the game sooner and could even save me if they managed to resolve an early Broodmate. Sower could accomplish similar goals, but was too weak to removal.

I knew I wanted an answer to Scepter of Fugue, as most lists seemed to have those. They could also have Jaces, but I figured I could just ignore those as I had several 2/2 fliers, Jaces of my own, and Tidehollow Scullers. Pithing Needle could solve both problems, but I would never want to use Needle on Jace, so I was kind of looking for a different answer, and Runed Halo was perfect. Not only was it great against Scepter and Cruel Ultimatum, but I could bring it in against aggressive decks.

Huge, game altering effects are great in Standard control mirrors if you can resolve them. Most of the time, both players are drawing cards and dealing with the other person’s threats, until someone starts drawing worse midgame and the other person pulls ahead. If you played Rock mirrors in old school Extended you know exactly what I’m talking about. It seemed like alot was happening, but actually nothing really was. I am always looking for something to change the flow of that, and cards like Upheaval or Rude Awakening were great back then.

Now all we really have is Cruel Ultimatum, but I can’t really cast that in my deck, plus there are cheaper on color options available. Mind Shatter is one such card, and I’m almost always happy to sleeve up a couple of those, especially when I have Archmage and Negate to help force it through.

Against WB, I wanted to cut the Scullers, Terrors, and maybe a Fulminator Mage. Austere Command is probably the single best card against their deck and is good against Doran as well, so I wanted a couple of those. Past that, there wasn’t anything specific I really wanted. Depending on the player, I could see myself siding in a Mind Shatter, some Jaces, and a Runed Halo.

WR was basically the same thing. Runed Halo was more useful as they had Figure of Destiny and Ajani Vengeant. I liked Mind Shatter against both white decks because they typically try to sandbag a five-drop to threaten you post Wrath, and with Shatter you can take away any hope they had.

For Faeries, I knew I wanted the other Scullers and some Jaces. As long as you continually have a steady steam of cards, you should be able to fight through their counterspells eventually. Even if it means using the Mikokoro ability on Jace, the cards help you more than them, partly because some of their draws are dead, and partly because your cards are more powerful.

In the dark, I would bring in a single Runed Halo against them, as they could have Scepter of Fugue. Even if they don’t, Halo can name something like Mutavault or Mistbind Clique, so at least you get some value out of it. Wrath, Negate, and Fulminator Mage are underwhelming against Faeries, so you can cut a certain amount of each of them.

So how did the tournament go? Well, I split in the finals of course!

Everything came together and I defeated 5cc, Faeries, WR Boat Brew, Kithkin, and Faeries before intentionally drawing with WB Tokens and a crazy Bant deck with Cephalid Constable as played by Larry Waymon. Thomas Harlon, the other player I IDed with, and I considered dream crushing both of our opponents to try and get my roommate, Sean Mangner, into top eight at 5-2, but Sean’s breakers were just bad enough that he would miss, no matter what we did.

The top eight was two WB Tokens, Esper Lark, Boat Brew, Bant, 4c Mannequin, GB Elves, and GW Kithkin.

I defeated WB and Kithkin before being paired against Harlan again. We decided to chop the prizes so we would each get $400 and I conceded to help him in his quest to qualify for Nationals on rating. All in all, a very good day.

I hope that this little walkthrough helps you with your future deck building adventures. I use a similar process nearly every single time I build a deck, and it works very well for me. As far as Esper Lark is concerned, I consider it to be one of the best decks in Standard. I feel like I made the right choice, so naturally, I would play the deck if I could do it all over again.

And, for those of you who would like something cleaner to look at, here you go:

Sideboarding vs. 5cc: + 3 Jace Beleren, 2 Mind Shatter, 2 Runed Halo, 2 Tidehollow Sculler

– 3 Terror, 4 Sower of Temptation, 2 Wrath of God

Sideboarding vs. Faeries: + 2 Tidehollow Sculler, 3 Jace Beleren, 1 Terror, 1 Runed Halo
– 4 Wrath of God, 3 Fulminator Mage

Sideboarding vs. WB Tokens: + 2 Austere Command, 2 Jace Beleren, 1 Mind Shatter
– 3 Terror, 2 Tidehollow Sculler

Sideboarding vs. WR Boat Brew: + 2 Runed Halo, 1 Terror
– 2 Tidehollow Sculler, 1 Glen Elendra Archmage

Sideboarding vs. Doran: + 2 Austere Command, 1 Terror, 2 Runed Halo
– 2 Tidehollow Sculler, 2 Negate, 1 Glen Elendra Archmage

GerryT

8 thoughts on “Chasing Victory: Deckbuilding and Esper Lark”

  1. GerryT, I enjoyed the article. This is a great article for players who are new to competitive Magic. It’s good to see you laid out when you choose to have 4x, 3x, 2x, and 1x copies of cards in the decks you build. This type of thinking can help newer players understand deck building much better and why some things have not (or maybe have been) working for them.

    Another thing I would like to comment on is that I realized reading this article that you state things in a very simple and understandable manner. I’ve been a fan of your writing since I came back to the game last summer and I think this is a big reason why. Whether I agree with your stance on a Magic issue or not, I always understand the reasoning for your stance, which is important. It actually helps me take a stance, whether I am right or wrong about it.

    Thanks for the quality articles.

  2. What do you think of the addition of 2 knight captain of eos, instead of 1 archmage and a terror?

  3. Tight list. You think there is room for the ‘spoiled’ Meddling Mage from Alara Reborn, or does he run into the Sculler problem by not being very solid with Wrath of God?

  4. No one is probably reading this anymore, but I would like to add that I think Negates are really bad against Boat Brew, so I’m cutting them to add maybe 2 Mind Shatters, because there’s no much they can do about it, where the only worst case scenario is if they have a Reveillark on top.

    Just another thing: Boat Brew doesn’t have many removals, so Sculler has a good chance of staying in the table, wich means a virtual Remove Soul.

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