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Silvestri Says – GP Phoenix Roundup

Well at least I’m prepared to play the Esper mirror now—Magic Online 8-mans became temporarily infested by the deck post-GP Cincinnati. I don’t blame anyone, but I am a little sick of playing 40+-minute games and waiting on my opponents most of that time. On the other hand, every other match is against Burn decks trying to net free wins against me, so I guess it balances out.

This is my current 75, and I’ll probably stay within 71 of it for GP Phoenix:

Right now the biggest debate I’ve had is over the Nightveil Specter plan versus other anti-black-and-blue options like Dark Betrayal, Blood Baron of Vizkopa, or Obzedat, Ghost Council. Nightveil is starting to feel a lot like last week’s technology considering how the Invitational and Grand Prix Beijing played out. Less Esper creeping into people’s minds and more “look at all these red aggro decks we can play!”

This week, I just want to talk about those red decks a little bit, and a few things I’ve noticed about playing Esper against such an open metagame.

Red Revengeance

I’ve been mentioning Burn as a viable archetype for a month now and I’m happy to see people finally coming around. I’m also far more concerned than I was, since this means I’ll likely have to play the matchup more than once at Grand Prix Phoenix. This is that moment I kept expecting with Caw Blade all those years ago that never came. People would eventually figure out they needed to switch to decks that didn’t get rolled by the dominate blue deck in the format and the metagame would correct itself. Instead, people just kept trucking along or quit the format until bans happened or Standard rotated.

This time we see a major case of blowback and some sweet decks.

Tom Ross, Top 8 – Charlotte Invitational

Sherwin Pu, Finalist – Grand Prix Beijing

As a non-red player your biggest issue will be correctly building your deck in a fashion that allows you to react to both the heavy creature red builds and the burn versions. Most Burn decks still run eight creatures so your removal isn’t entirely dead, but you need to bare in mind the vast gulf between them. The value of your removal, especially game one where you have a ton of it, varies to a ridiculous degree.

I played the Tom Ross deck in two Daily Events, cashing one and 1-2’ing the other in completely non-interactive games. I’ve only played 11 matches with the deck and I get whiplash trying to navigate from how easy to how impossible many of your games are to play. You’ll almost always know by turn four whether or not you’ll be winning the game, and in the few close games a lot of it comes down to how your opponent plays around pump. In a world where your opponents are fully cognizant of everything the deck can do, I think this is a pretty bad bet, but in the real world most people don’t play around pump correctly.

I think both of these decks and eight-creature Burn are all very good calls for a tournament this weekend. I would think closely about your sideboard, though. I think Assemble the Legion goes up dramatically in value for Burn players if Staff of the Death Magus becomes the go-to choice for Black Devotion, and the same for maxing out on Searing Blood for Ross’s deck if it sees more play.

Sequencing Scrys

Turn one scry on the play is one of the more miserable things to do unless you know what your opponent is on or you absolutely need land. If you don’t need land, playing a scry in the dark is almost a complete waste because you have no idea if that Supreme Verdict is relevant or not. Scrys on the draw will at least be an educated guess, even if you can’t figure out the opponent’s deck with 100% certainty.

If you’re going to Thoughtseize on turn two, remember to do so before playing a scry land. Same goes for what you see off Jace reveals from the opponent—if you know their plan, it makes scrys all the more powerful.

Sometimes I play sloppily online because I’m in a hurry or not paying full attention, and it’s a bad habit. Whenever you play a scry land, treat it as if you were casting an Opt and not just making a land drop for the turn. I find this slight mental distinction can really help players who have the same mental shortcut.

If it is a good card, consider whether or not it fits with your current game plan. I find many Esper players that automatically leave good cards on top, even when they desperately need a land or particular answer because they have a few more draw steps to work with. It isn’t worth rolling the dice unless you need to immediately hit multiple live draws just to stay in the game.

Ideal times to play scry lands are usually turn one, three, and even four and five if you aren’t trying to jam a Verdict or Jace out. All you really want to do is be able to kill a creature on turn two and that gives you a lot of leeway in how you play lands. Just figure out if you need to Dissolve on turn three and you can realistically play scrys on your first three turns in slower matchups.

What Matters in the Mirror

Always hitting land drops, Jace, Sphinx, Aetherling, and fighting over said cards. Easy game!

People in the mirror tend to complain a lot whenever a Revelation gets discarded by Thoughtseize, but that just reinforces how important these few spells are. It also speaks to how open the metagame is, otherwise we could just jam a bunch of Divinations or Read the Bones. Unfortunately, finding the room in an Esper build is quite difficult. Aiming a deck at winning the mirror, MBC, and midrange isn’t really doable if Mono-Red and Burn are out in force. Grand Prix Beijing is a great wake-up call if anyone thought Burn was a one-shot deal.

Battling over Sphinx’s Revelation and Aetherling are seen as the most important things in this match. While they can be, don’t get tunnel vision when assessing threats. Smaller Revelations aren’t the end of the world if you can stick a Jace or only have a single relevant counterspell and fighting would possibly allow an Aetherling or Obzedat to hit the board. Often it isn’t even worth it if they can just play an uncontested Jace and keep countermagic up. Remember that even if they only cash in Jace a pair of activations, the opponent has still gone six cards deep and potentially four cards ahead.

Letting early card draw resolve and then fighting over the spells that actually end the game is perfectly reasonable. Fighting over Thoughtseize can even be correct at times—it gives one player a huge edge to know when to deploy the bulk of his or her resources. Fighting a counter war isn’t cheap and most decks don’t have the reserves to do more than one or two extended fights over the course of a game.

Just figure out if you want to be proactive or reactive before a tournament. Playing the same way with a Nightveil Specter list or one with all discard over countermagic will invite major differences in how you plan your post-board games.

Playing the Burn match

Jace, Architect of Thought is the best card, both for defending yourself and winning the game. Revelation is too expensive and burn players won’t typically spend burn to take Jace out, so he becomes your draw engine. His +1 also defends very well against all of their creatures and his ultimate will generally win you the game if it resolves. Sounds pretty obvious in that sense, but that’s mostly because you can steal Warleader’s Helix. If they didn’t have that, it wouldn’t actually be good enough,

You’ll notice I ended up throwing in a Trading Post at this point, and while this annoys me I really dislike losing to Burn. While Trading Post isn’t my ideal card, the difference is that Blind Obedience got very bad and Trading Post can cash in any card as a 1-for-1 trade with any burn they have. Fiendslayer Paladin remains a strong choice, but you can’t afford to run that many WW spells and guarantee you’ll hit on curve.

In general, you want to counter early and often so you aren’t constrained on mana later in the game. Saving them specifically for Boros Charm can be correct if your life total will force them to have multiple 4-point burn spells to win. Otherwise you’d rather counter 3 damage on an otherwise irrelevant turn so you can fully utilize your mana down the line for Sphinx’s Revelation. The one exception to this is when you’re coming up on seven mana and want to play Jace while holding open a counter.

Post-board, Thoughtseize remains a fine choice as taking a burn spell and gaining information about their options is worth the 2 points of life. Negate and Dispel are the big gains in regard to non-life gain options, Dispel let’s you protect against Skullcrack on Revelation turns and is just solid in general. Negate is just enough mana that it doesn’t conveniently allow you to protect yourself when tapping down for key spells, but it’s better than what you had in the deck.

Supreme Verdict and the Metagame

So Supreme Verdict is in a very odd place right now. The majority of matches where you really want it, GR Monsters, Mono-U Devotion, midrange piles, and so on have declined or left the metagame. Instead the best aggro decks right now are ones that ignore it outright like Burn or do their best to deal a ton of damage before Verdict comes online. Even if you cast Verdict, who cares? You already took 12 and they have a Mutavault on the table.

It remains passable against black decks of various sorts and it still smashes Mono-U, but compared to a month ago the Verdict stock has dropped dramatically. And yet it’s difficult to justify cutting them down because it’s such a unique and powerful effect. Since the metagame hasn’t really coalesced into a “Big 3” as is typical with Standard, keeping a card like Verdict in makes sense since it’s amazing against randomness and passable elsewhere.

Despite this, as the results roll I consider making a serious departure and simply swapping in other types of removal. My biggest problem is that Verdict is still a nice catch-all for removal, while everything else only hits 60-80% of what I want it to. This is why going heavier black for Hero’s Downfall remains on the table despite not really blowing me away in any other respect. Plus, that downgrade you take in mass removal means that if a Pack Rat gets out of hand or GR plays more than one important creature, you really lean on hitting a mass quantity of removal to stay in the game.

I tried a sweet no-Verdict list and everything was peachy right until I ran into decks that play Forests and then it all went sideways. In a way, this sums up Esper Control in a nutshell, the deck isn’t really as flexible as everything else in the metagame. Sideboard-wise, yes, you can go nuts with the deck and none of it is wrong necessarily. However, the main deck is very rigid, so unless you want to bank on playing certain matchups all day there’s little room for error.

So there you go: what I’m battling with at Phoenix and some considerations for all the Mountains I expect to see sleeved up. Personally I’m a little sad GP Cincinatti and GP Phoenix weren’t swapped date-wise, because Esper two weeks ago looked a lot more dominating and scary than it does today. However, this is a Standard that rewards sticking with what you know (high skill cap on most decks) and having utilizing good sideboard plans.

Good luck!

Josh Silvestri
Email me at: [email protected]

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