The focus for many players going into Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad was to find the best Languish deck. Public enemies number 1 and 2 were Humans decks of all flavors and Bant Company. These decks are built around having several creatures in play at efficient rates, which happens to be exactly where Languish shines. Finding a deck that can both utilize Languish and beat other decks built to beat Humans and Bant Company is the real dilemma.
With such a focus on cheap creatures, removal is at a premium. Players are running Declaration in Stone, Dromoka’s Command, Languish, Fiery Impulse, Radiant Flames, Kozilek’s Return, Ultimate Price, Grasp of Darkness, Silkwrap, Stasis Snare, and more. Playing a deck that can make all those cards look silly in an opponent’s hand is a great start.
Planeswalkers don’t have much resistance right now. There are cards like Anguished Unmaking and Ruinous Path, but they aren’t popular, and you’ll still get value out of your planeswalkers before these cards are relevant. Finding the right mix to put away a game is the key.
Narset Transcendent acts as the backbone to this strategy. Narset enters the battlefield at an absurd 6 loyalty. That’s a card that will almost never be killed by creatures the turn after she enters the battlefield. Narset will also draw you approximately half a card per turn since more than half of your deck consists of noncreature and nonland cards.
2 loyalty to set up the rebound ability is also quite cheap. It’s a common line with this deck to use the minus before casting a removal spell or sweeper. While your opponent probably won’t refill the board and the rebounded spell will have no effect, that’s good enough. A -2 that can often serve as a functional Time Walk is pretty amazing in a deck that’s trying to survive long enough to set up some super friends. The ultimate on Narset isn’t challenging to reach, especially when you’re drawing extra removal every turn, and will win the game on the spot against many decks in the format.
I admit that I didn’t expect to see Jace, Unraveler of Secrets making the Top 8 in the very first Pro Tour for which he was eligible. Not that Jace isn’t powerful—he is—but in a format with both Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Ob Nixilis Reignited, I couldn’t find him a home. This is another high loyalty planeswalker—just like every other one in the deck—that can help protect itself or continue to tick up for value. A scry plus a card is nearly Preordain levels of value every single turn, and you get that simply for increasing his loyalty.
Speaking of Ob Nixilis, he’s still great. He either comes down to kill the biggest creature on the board or starts drawing cards immediately. An Ob Nixilis emblem is a win condition against a variety of decks, especially something like Ramp. Sure, you may not have great ways to deal with a recurring World Breaker, but you can kill it enough times that the ultimate can race to win the game.
The final super friend in the equation is a new toy for all control and midrange players alike. Sorin, Grim Nemesis may yet be format defining. Another in a long line of planeswalkers that has huge loyalty, he can tick up for card advantage and has a minus that can stabilize a game. Sorin can kill planeswalkers and just about any creature in the format while also giving you a nice life buffer. Sorin draws cards, kills an important permanent, and gains 6+ life.
The only creature in the deck is a nice one that hasn’t seen much play yet. Sphinx of the Final Word is great against nearly all of the interaction in the format. While Sphinx doesn’t play very well against decks with World Breaker that can return the Kozilek’s Return, it does fight against almost everything else extremely well. The sweepers in Standard are Radiant Flames and Languish, which can’t touch the Sphinx, and hexproof will shut off everything targeted. While uncounterable isn’t of extreme importance in Standard, if there is a rise in decks like Esper Dragons, then Sphinx will do even more—but be careful of Foul-Tongue Invocation in game 1.
With this collection of threats, there are going to be a number of decks that can’t interact with you. Reflector Mage is one of the most powerful cards in Standard and there is nothing it can target here. A 2/3 Human for 3 with no ability doesn’t sound so menacing.
Most of the planeswalkers in the deck can protect themselves with their minus abilities, but do even moreso by their incredibly high loyalties. With the majority of interaction in Standard coming in combat, high loyalty is already great protection, and with plenty of removal you should be able to keep the board clear.
Languish is the premier reason to play this deck. Much of this format revolves around decks that can utilize Languish and decks that would prefer not to see a Languish. While there are plenty of instant-speed ways to get around the sweeper, such as Secure the Wastes and Collected Company, it still does serious work. You don’t see many 4-mana sweepers anymore, so while this doesn’t do everything, it’s well positioned right now.
When Languish isn’t enough, there’s Planar Outburst. This is one of the few answers to a card like Sphinx of the Final Word. It also clears full-sized Sylvan Advocates, Gitrog Monsters, and other late-game threats. Outburst can also be a win condition thanks to a relatively affordable awaken cost.
Grasp of Darkness and Ultimate Price are the best black removal spells in the format. Their heavy black commitment will constrain how you build your deck, but removing important threats at instant speed and for a great tempo advantage is huge. Both of these cards can answer important early threats like Thalia’s Lieutenant, Sylvan Advocate, and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. They also conveniently are efficient answers to Archangel Avacyn.
Ruinous Path and Silumgar’s Command fill out the removal suite. These are some of the best ways for a creatureless deck to deal with opposing planeswalkers, which can be a problem—having a way to get rid of Chandra is the difference between winning and losing.
An old card that found its way into the spotlight this weekend was Dark Petition. This card has seen quite a bit of play in Legacy and Vintage, but was never much of a consideration in Standard. While Petition is great in conjunction with Seasons Past, allowing the caster to loop back all of their great spells every turn, it also does work in Esper Control. Conveniently, the removal spells in this deck all require black mana that can be cast off of the spell mastery trigger.
Most of the time, you’ll search for Languish. While many matchups require you to have access to Languish on turn 4—a second Languish on turn 6 can be backbreaking. This tends to be the followup after playing a big planeswalker on turn 5 and removing an opposing threat, which happens to be an awesome way to keep the board clear. There is also nothing better for Narset’s rebound ability to target than a Dark Petition and it will almost always result in a game win.
This deck doesn’t have many life points to play with, so Anguished Unmaking, Painful Truths, and Read the Bones don’t make the cut, at least not in the main deck. There are too many matchups that are tempo-based, where taking a turn off from casting a removal spell to deal damage to yourself isn’t realistic. There are also a number of lands that come into play tapped. It’s important to be able to get your Languish off on turn 4, so an instant that you can play for 2 mana, even on turn 3 when you play a tapped land while also leaving up removal, is crucial. Anticipate fills this role nicely. It’s not the strongest card in the format, but it does its job quite well, helping to find the lands, removal, threats, or Languish you need.
Spell Shrivel, in my estimation, is not a Standard-playable Magic card. The cost is too high and the effect is too minimal. Including a counterspell makes sense, and a counter like Negate that is close to dead in some matchups is unfortunate, but believe me—Spell Shrivel is also going to be bad in those matchups. Watching a Spell Shrivel against Ramp attempting to counter a World Breaker but still not being able to was pretty damning. Counters aren’t at their peak right now, but I think I would look in the direction of Negate if I was going to play any main. It won’t do anything against Archangel Avacyn, but the rest of the deck is so well positioned against these other threats that I believe it’s worth it.
Here’s the list Seth Manfield and members of East/West Bowl piloted that ended up leaving Seth in the Top 8 of Pro Tour Shadows over Innistrad:
Seth Manfield, Top 8 at PT Shadows over Innistrad
The sideboard is currently where the creatures reside. There are matchups where Jace, Dragonlord Ojutai, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet are excellent, but they’re going to be much weaker in game 1 when opponents still have creature removal. Getting your creature hit by Declaration in Stone isn’t the worst thing in the world since you’ll come out ahead in cards, but tempo is so important when playing a control deck like this that it’s simply not worth it.
Discard spells and Negates are the best tools for forcing through what really matters. Against control decks, you’re going to have to eliminate some excess removal for cards that are proactive for the matchup. There will be decks against which Grasp and Ultimate Price are dead cards, so you’ll need enough replacements. Duress, Transgress the Mind, and Negate are at the top of the list, but Dragonlord Ojutai and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy will also join in the fight against decks where you have to shave 12 cards.
These creatures let you make sure you have no bad cards in your deck after sideboarding. Decks can’t afford to keep in removal spells on the gambit that you’re boarding in creatures. Even if they have the answer to Jace, it’s not like that’s the end of the world as you’ll often still be trading 2 mana for 2 mana, but the more likely occurrence will be that you have a Looter and a planeswalker soon enough.
Each of these creatures can singlehandedly win a game, which is pretty awesome when players should sideboard out as much removal as they possibly can against you. The mind games involved between guessing how much removal players will have access to in future games is what makes this deck and the game of Magic so interesting. Keep your removal in because you anticipate there will be creatures and risk being caught with a handful of dead cards.
There are a number of strategies that can be effective against Esper Planeswalkers. GW Tokens, the hot deck to come out of the Pro Tour, is not a favorable matchup. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Nissa, Voice of Zendikar are both hard to deal with. Planeswalkers that create armies are problematic for control decks that don’t actually have creatures to attack them. Esper has plenty of ways to deal with Archangel Avacyn, but you also need to keep up mana all the time. Hangarback Walker tends to take a pair of cards to deal with since you don’t really have access to exile effects, and Secure the Wastes can be a huge problem.
Luckily, there’s a potential sideboard card that can really help in this matchup. Virulent Plague didn’t make it into the EWB deck, but it’s very strong against several top performing decks from the PT and can easily be fetched and played the same turn as a Dark Petition. Answering all of the tokens from Nissa, Gideon, Hangarback, and Secure is awesome, and stopping the tokens from Blisterpod and Catacomb Sifter can be a decent tool against GB Sacrifice. Plague won’t fully stop Gideon and Nissa as Gideon still requires an actual answer before it kills you and Nissa can pump your remaining creatures.
It’s not going to be easy to deal with the indestructible side of Gideon, and if Ormendahl, the Profane Prince ever makes an appearance, it’s lights out—but a Virulent Plague should help to make sure that never happens.
A main deck built to beat Humans and Bant Company is a great place to be. Access to Kalitas when players won’t be able to afford many, if any, answers to it is a truly awesome place to be in the format.
If you’re looking to combat this deck, the first thing you can try to do is win quickly. Get in a bunch of damage early and cross your fingers on no Languish. There isn’t much card draw, so with 4 Languish and 4 Anticipate as the ways to have access to it by turn 4, you have a reasonable shot of getting in enough damage before they can sweep the board. There’s also a number of lands that come into play tapped, so capitalize on their stumbles.
Tokens of all varieties are going to be tough, as are any planeswalkers. The Esper deck doesn’t have effective ways to attack planeswalkers, so relying on Ruinous Path and Silumgar’s Command is asking a lot out of those cards. Spell Shrivel may hit something, and Negate after sideboard can do the trick, but they aren’t reliable.
This deck is great against creatures, but instant-speed creatures off Collected Company can still be an issue. If opponents can cast Company and then untap with access to Negate or Invasive Surgery to counter a Languish, the game will often be over. Taking 6 and then another 6 or more damage is tough to come back from. That’s without even trying to deal with a Lumbering Falls.
Esper Planeswalkers appears to be the best control deck in current Standard. In my testing, Esper Dragons didn’t do quite enough and Dragonlord Ojutai wasn’t well positioned without ways to protect it. Trying to get in many attacks with the Dragon never seemed to work out well, so planeswalkers and Sphinx of the Final Word are a more effective plan.
There are a number of directions to go with the deck as the format is still young. Improvements can be made to every strategy you saw utilized at PT Shadows over Innistrad, which is a really fun environment for any Magic player looking to innovate. This is definitely the shell I would start with in creating the optimal control shell in current Standard. Which direction do you think Esper will go? Are there any critical sideboard cards you think should be played? Sound off in the comments!