Game Analysis: Esper Dragons vs. BG Sacrifice

Welcome to another edition of Game Analysis, a special column where I examine, in detail, a single game from video tournament coverage.

Knowing the basics will get you far in Magic. That said, there’s no better way to achieve a higher level of play than by getting into the head of a world-class player and trying to understand the finer details of their gameplay. That’s why today I’ve selected the quarterfinals of Pro Tour Shadows Over Innistrad between Hall of Fame players Shota Yasooka and Luis Scott-Vargas.

I’m going to look at game 2 of the match from the perspective of Shota Yasooka.

A Disclaimer

Analyzing this game was a fun and enlightening undertaking for me. Shota Yasooka and Luis Scott-Vargas are both famous as being lightning fast players and flawless technicians. My brain simply doesn’t work as fast as theirs. Among the rare cases where I disagreed with one of their plays, 90% of the time they were proven right and I was proven wrong (either by deeper thought or by watching a turn or two ahead in the game). For the remaining 10% of the cases—which I will irreverently post below—I’m still half expecting to be proven wrong as well.

So I have two disclaimers. The first is that what I write in this article is not gospel truth, simply my opinion. But I do think my opinions are valuable since I’ve had the advantage of studying the match in painstaking detail with no outside pressures or time constraints. Secondly, disagreements aren’t meant as slights to the players. Nobody in the world can play a game like this to perfection, and the fact that I had to use such a precise lens to find anything worth challenging is a credit to them.

The Matchup

Shota Yasooka is playing Esper Dragons and Luis Scott-Vargas is playing GB Sacrifice. The Pro Tour Top 8 uses a special best-of-5 format where the first 2 games are played without sideboards. So the game in question will feature only the players’ main deck cards. That said, they’ve already played one game, they have each other’s deck lists, and have likely practiced the matchup ahead of time, so there will be no surprises.

GB Sacrifice typically poses a problem for answer-based control decks. Its creatures are chosen for their triggered abilities (either entering the battlefield or dying) and are therefore expendable and resilient to removal. Esper Dragons is unique in the fact that its particular suite of creatures (namely Jace and Dragonlord Ojutai) match up very well against GB Sacrifice and can be leveraged into huge advantages. So Yasooka won’t be seeking to control the game indefinitely, but will instead be trying to buy time in the early game, and get Dragonlord Ojutai into play as quickly as possible.

Another extremely important card is Languish, of which Shota plays 3 copies.

Esper Dragons

Shota Yasooka

BG Aristocrats

Luis Scott-Vargas

The Early Turns

The video cuts to the game on Shota Yasooka’s turn 3. You haven’t missed much, however, since it appears that turns 1 and 2 were more or less scripted for both players. Shota has 2 Choked Estuaries, Caves of Koilos, and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Scott-Vargas has a Forest, Swamp, Loam Dryad, and Zulaport Cutthroat.

The key detail on turn 3 is that Yasooka casts Painful Truths without activating Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Many players have the habit of using Jace right away, just as naturally as they untap their lands and draw their card—it’s important to know when to deviate from such a pattern. In this case, Shota knows that Painful Truths is his best possible play for this turn, and there’s no point in digging for a different option. Therefore, he extracts maximum value from his draw + discard by waiting until the last possible moment. He has the added value of seeing what he draws off of Painful Truths, and seeing what LSV does on his turn. That and, of course, he gets to block 1 point of damage!

Luis attacks and casts Nantuko Husk. At the end of the turn, Shota does activate the Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and looks at a hand of: Island, Swamp, Prairie Stream, Silumgar’s Scorn, Silumgar’s Scorn, Foul-Tongue Invocation, Foul-Tongue Invocation, Dragonlord Ojutai. He discards Prairie Stream because he has plenty of lands but wants to keep the basics, which will enter the battlefield untapped.

Decision #1: Loot

Shota passes turn 4 after playing (untapped) a freshly drawn Port Town. Scott-Vargas attacks for 2 and casts Duskwatch Recruiter, presenting the first challenging decision of the game. Yasooka has 2 copies each of Silumgar’s Scorn and Foul-Tongue Invocation and 4 open mana (but only 3 blue). He wants to cast one or the other this turn before untapping and casting Dragonlord Ojutai. Masterfully, he chooses this as the moment to activate Jace. If he finds something like a targeted removal spell or a Languish, it will inform his decision. Instead, he finds a third copy of Foul-Tongue Invocation.

To recap, his hand is now: Island, Swamp, Dragonlord Ojutai, 2 copies of Silumgar’s Scorn, and 3 copies of Foul-Tongue Invocation. He discards the Island, but I disagree with that decision. He has no shortage of things to do with his mana, but definitely wants to hit his land drops for the next 2 or 3 turns. He’ll be able to use Dragonlord Ojutai and Jace to find more lands in an emergency, but he’d prefer to use them to find efficient answer cards. If the cards come off the top of his library in a certain way, he might find himself having to forgo taking a helpful spell off of an Ojutai trigger in order to make his land drops. I’d prefer to discard a Foul-Tongue Invocation.

Decision #2: Foul-Tongue Timing

Next, Shota decides that he’s going to let the Duskwatch Recruiter (still on the stack) resolve, and instead cast Foul-Tongue Invocation. Recruiter is a card that will let Luis trade mana (or tempo) for card advantage. With Dragonlord Ojutai coming next turn, Shota feels comfortable winning any game where he doesn’t fall drastically behind on the board within the next 2 turns. In this particular game state, the Recruiter’s activated ability doesn’t threaten him and he instead decides to buffer his life total with Foul-Tongue Invocation.

It’s a genius play, but I minorly disagree with his execution. He responds to the spell with Foul-Tongue Invocation, but I think he’d prefer to wait until the end of the turn. In most realistic situations, Luis is going to sacrifice Loam Dryad either way. But if he follows up by casting Zulaport Cutthroat or Catacomb Sifter, I believe that it would change Shota’s plans and lead him to cast Silumgar’s Scorn instead.

Turn 5 goes as scripted, with Yasooka casting Ojutai and using the Jace transform to fog Nantuko Husk for a turn. He discards a land since he’d drawn 2 in his last 2 draws (boy, is my face red!).

On turn 6, he untaps and faces a threatening board state. Scott-Vargas has 5 lands including Westvale Abbey and 6 creatures including Nantuko Husk and Zulaport Cutthroat. There are a handful of possible sequences that might lead to him dying next turn, but he’s unlikely to win the game if he has to chumpblock Nantuko Husk with Dragonlord Ojutai anyway, so he begins by attacking. The top of his library offers up another Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.

So on this turn he can cast any combination of two of the following: 1 Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, 2 Silumgar’s Scorn, and 2 Foul-Tongue Invocation. Jace is tempting, since he can chumpblock Nantuko Husk and reduce the risk of outright dying. But other considerations include using mana efficiently, buffering life total, and reducing Luis’s number of creatures (Foul-Tongue Invocation is Shota’s only direct answer to Ormendahl, so he doesn’t want to let Luis transform Westvale Abbey with backup creatures still in play). Perhaps Jace is the better short-term play, but Shota identifies the better long-term play and casts Foul-Tongue Invocation (main phase so that Duskwatch Recruiter cannot transform), ticks up Jace, Telepath Unbound targeting Nantuko Husk, and passes with mana open for either Silumgar’s Scorn or Foul-Tongue Invocation. Luis casts Zulaport Cutthroat and Shota counters it with Silumgar’s Scorn.

Turn 7 is where the game really opens up for Yasooka. Each turn prior, he really only had a small handful of plays to choose from that would keep him alive. This turn, he finally finds some breathing room and some flexibility to take the game where he wants it to go. After attacking with Ojutai, selecting Grasp of Darkness, and playing his land for the turn, his hand contains: Grasp of Darkness, Ultimate Price, Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy, Silumgar’s Scorn, and Foul-Tongue Invocation. He has 7 lands and Jace, Telepath Unbound with 6 loyalty.

His greatest fears are: (1) Nantuko Husk connecting in combat; (2) getting combo’d out by 2 Zulaport Cutthroat; and (3) Ormendahl connecting in combat. It seems certain that he wants to hold up mana for Silumgar’s Scorn and that he wants to reserve Ultimate Price for killing Nantuko Husk.

Decision #3: Grasp Target

My play would be to cast Grasp of Darkness on Nantuko Husk. I believe that it’s the most valuable creature on the battlefield, and since Luis doesn’t know about the Ultimate Price in Shota’s hand, he’s liable to value it even more highly, perhaps sacrificing 2 creatures to save it from the Grasp. Instead, Shota Grasps the Cutthroat. He ticks up Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy on Nantuko Husk and passes the turn.

LSV casts Zulaport Cutthroat followed by Loam Dryad, which Yasooka allows to resolve. Next, he attacks and sacrifices the Dryad to pump up Nantuko Husk. Yasooka cannot afford to take this damage because Scott-Vargas would be dangerously close to being able to respond to a future Foul-Tongue Invocation by sacrificing his board and winning off of Zulaport Cutthroat triggers. He Ultimate Prices Nantuko Husk before combat damage. Importantly, this reduces the risk that Collected Company might win the game at instant speed (since it would now need to hit Zulaport Cutthroat and Nantuko Husk). Once the Husk is off the table, but still before combat damage, he casts Foul-Tongue Invocation to kill off a Scion token and keep his life total high.

Turn 8 begins the same way the previous few have, with a Dragonlord Ojutai attack. In sequencing a complicated turn, it’s best to perform the actions that provide you with more information (and more options) as early as possible. Next, Shota uses his Telepath Unbound to flashback Foul-Tongue Invocation, Grasps another creature, plays a land, and passes with Silumgar’s Scorn mana open. He counters Duskwatch Recruiter, which at this late stage is about as threatening as any other single card Luis has in his deck.

Turn 9 Ojutai finds Ob Nixilis, Reignited, which kills off Liliana, Heretical Healer. Shota finally deploys his Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.

By turn 10, things have become fairly academic, but Shota maintains his pristine level of technical play. Ob Nixilis ticks up first, then Dragonlord Ojutai attacks, which is the perfect way to sequence the early part of the turn. Dragonlord Silumgar draws a concession from Luis Scott-Vargas, and Shota Yasooka wins the game.

This game was played masterfully on both sides of the table. Luis kept open as many doors as possible that could lead to a win. Shota had to walk a tightrope and protect himself from several angles at once while progressing his own game plan with Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Dragonlord Ojutai.

Shota used narrow windows on turn 2, turn 3, and turn 5 to build advantages for himself. Every other turn was used protecting his life total and managing Luis’s board. One slip-up could’ve meant dying to Zulaport Cutthroat or allowing Ormendahl, Profane Prince to go unchecked. He navigated beautifully and gave Luis as few outs as possible.

This is the level of play that Pro Tour players should be working towards, and the best way to do so is to study the masters at work.

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