This past weekend I made Top 8 of a TCGPlayer 5K event playing Esper Control, losing to long-time #mtgfriendship Sam Pardee. My list hasn’t really changed from last week, with only two real swaps. I added Dimir Charm to the deck when a commenter suggested it, and it played out pretty well. I killed plenty of Mutavaults with it and it dug me to Sphinx’s Revelation a few times. On the flip side, Sam also kept offering to give me Azorius Charm #3 and 4, which admittedly in hindsight would’ve mostly accomplished the same goal.
My other swap was to completely remove Thoughtseize after playing builds on MTGO with only two and not really missing them. A build with none felt significantly worse in the control mirror, however, and I definitely want two in the sideboard after all. As for main deck ones, I’d rather run removal and stick with my quad-Dissolve and double-Syncopate package.
I’ve read arguments leaning the other way, but at that point you may as well just play BW Control if you want to lean that heavily on Thoughtseize. Even if you wanted to stick with Esper, ditching countermagic feels like a miserable place to be when there’s only two decks in the format that can avoid playing expensive spells into counters.
For the next Open I attend, I plan on keeping my Blind Obedience/Fiendslayer Paladin package despite not battling any red decks. They were definitely present, I just happened to duck them and play against more Island decks. After the past weekend where burn decks did pretty well, I can’t imagine cutting them though. Sadly I went from having a few extra sideboard slots to wanting 20 again.
I just want to hit on some of the key cards and general thoughts on each match for Esper Control.
Almost all of your losses will stem from one of those five cards going unanswered. In fact, the planeswalker package makes this match much more of a challenge for us. Doom Blade and Ultimate Price give us cheap and easy answers to half the problems, but you have fewer Mutavaults to pressure their planeswalkers with. A huge portion of your post-board games are also decided by your ability to deal with their threats without leaning on Detention Sphere, since D-Spheres getting Unraveled is a big tempo loss.
Archangel of Thune out of UW is actually stronger in this match since you can turn five Archangel and fly past everything aside from Stormbreath Dragon. Realistically your games will be determined by simply staying ahead on cards and making sure you choke them out of resources. For the Esper players this means that you really don’t sideboard much, just bring in Doom Blade and hope for the best.
MBC is a good mix of cards you can safely ignore thanks to your removal suite (Pack Rat and Desecration Demon) and cards that directly interact with yours. The latter are the scary ones, and Thoughtseize, Nightveil Specter, and Hero’s Downfall can all be quite obnoxious. Underworld Connections is only important in the sense that they need it to stay in a long game with you. Destroying Connections and getting past turn seven will almost always result in victory thanks to your high-end.
Erebos, God of the Dead is special in the sense that it can not only draw a bunch of cards in a hurry (Though at huge cost, just getting Divination is 8 mana and 4 life), but also shuts off your Revelation end-game to a degree. If you get stuck in the 3-6 life range then suddenly every Mutavault attack is scary and Gray Merchant of Asphodel is a very real card instead of another delaying tactic.
On the bright side, Blood Baron of Vizkopa is a complete wrecking and gives you a good win condition that costs less than six and doesn’t immediately get haumphed. Admittedly, Lifebane Zombie can steal it, but it also means you won’t be dealing with Nightveil Specter or they overloaded on three-drops post-board. Devour Flesh is usually a red herring—sometimes you’ll desperation a Blood Baron, but usually you can wait for a bit and play it with Dispel, Negate, or Mutavault up. Sometimes you’ll play Elspeth first and make three Soldiers even though you know it’ll die to Hero’s Downfall immediately.
Point is, an attacking Blood Baron safely removes the burn-you-out option that they can sometimes pull off against Aetherling or Elspeth. At worst, it can buy you multiple turns to hopefully draw another Jace or Revelation to get out of your jam.
Revelation Mirror (UW/Esper)
This match is rather unique in that your main draw engine is [ccProd]Jace, Architect of Thought[/ccProd]. Sphinx’s Revelations are precious commodities that everyone is willing to fight tooth and nail over, even when they shouldn’t. Since we only have so much countermagic to go around, this leaves us in an awkward spot where some draw is going to slip through. In this case, it’s Jace, because letting them -2 once and hitting it with a Mutavault or Detention Sphere isn’t the worst trade.
So do you want to fight over Jace? Honestly I don’t know with 100% certainty. I’ve tried playing Jace multiple ways on different turns and in general I’ve found turn four, five, and million tend to be the best. These are early enough to still be potent, and if your opponent does win a fight, untaps and casts a relevant spell, it’s not going to be anything that just straight-up beats you. If you do it on turn seven which many people seem to favor and spend a Dissolve or Negate protecting it, then the opponent untapping and blasting an Aetherling is probably game over in the worst case. Even just resolving a Jace of their own and keeping a counter open so you can’t force through a huge Revelation feels pretty lousy.
So I like blasting Jace early unless I have a heavily reactive hand. If it resolves I also don’t mind +1’ing it for a turn, even if it eats an immediate Detention Sphere. While I usually don’t try to go for the ultimate, I don’t mind setting up a pair of -2 turns. Just getting a better Divination out of Jace isn’t my goal in this match, I want to force my opponent to react and if they can’t then get significant resources from him.
Elixir and Aetherling accomplish the same goal. Aetherling is a threat that ends the game very quickly after hitting play, while Elixir only wins if you were already in a neutral or winning position. Elixir will never pull you out from behind, while Aetherling is easily the equivalent of 5-7 cards in the control mirror. It isn’t as inevitable as Elixir and an Elixir build can grind you out, but it is very difficult. Aetherling also has the benefit of ending the game while Elixir typically prolongs it another 5-10 minutes.
The counter argument to the above is that Elixir is less of a “dead card” in many matches, which is true. They both kind of suck to see in an opener, but Elixir at least does something early on. It also makes your deck much better on turn ten or so, adding back a bunch of business while removing 8-12 lands from your deck. While Aetherling goes about attempting to end the game, on the same turn you would use an Elixir you may not be able to throw an Aetherling down safely. So in that sense I can’t fairly compare the two in terms of midgame usefulness.
I play Aetherling in large part because I like having a threat I can shove with. Half the mirror games come down to careful positioning and long-term resource building while the other half is just blasting threats at the opponent because you happened to draw more of them. It helps that post-board you have Thoughtseize and Dispel which make it far easier to protect your own threats.
Try not to die and get rid of Phoenix ASAP. Post-board having more than a pair of answers against Mutavault is huge, and the scariest burn opponents are the ones that play turn one Mutavault and start attacking immediately.
On something unrelated to Esper and UW decks, I’d like to talk for a minute about slow play. First off, if you’re a judge, you call slow play far too little. For every one judge to which the request, “Please call slow play more, because you are doing a terrible job at it currently,” would not apply, there’s 20 to whom it does. People shouldn’t be able to sideboard for four minutes because you refuse to make someone uncomfortable for a moment.
Calling a slow play penalty is subjective and there’s no clear line. Most judges I’ve talked to say 40-45 seconds, but it fluctuates wildly depending on the judge. In general, when you give a slow play warning you can fully expect to get a negative reaction from the player even if the penalty was wholly deserved. Speaking from personal experience I’ve gotten worse reactions from telling people to play faster than from players I’ve disqualified from tournaments.
So if a judge is reading this, here’s the deal: You lose your right to complain about slow players if you give zero slow play warnings at competitive REL events. Too many of you exist already and if you’re worried about pulling the trigger too quickly (you aren’t) then get a stopwatch app and time from start of turn to the first meaningful action a player makes.
As for players, please keep calling for judges and if they don’t do anything, ask them why afterward. Explain your case without badgering and even if the judge doesn’t agree with you, they’ll at least think about it for next time. If you’re a player and get called for slow play, try not to take it personally. People aren’t singling you out, and odds are you were playing slowly.
Also on a personal note, I want timed Top 8s for events that aren’t premier-level events. The vast majority of the time nothing changes if say, a 90-minute time limit is put in place. What it does solve is control mirrors going on for two or more hours because everyone goes into grazing mode where they make decisions at the same speed, but spend 30 seconds eating grass and generally mulling over life.
Magic Online doesn’t turn off the timers when the Top 8 rolls around and real events shouldn’t either. I find it silly that we’re pushing making plays in a timely fashion, but oh, Top 8! Totally different! To top it off, we can actually put enough judges watching games to make sure everyone plays at a reasonable pace.
That’s all from this week, I’m off to LA for the Open and some more battling with Esper Control.