The life of a mediocre magic player is an arduous one. You have to balance your love for the game, acknowledgement that at larger events you are outclassed by most of the room, and a burning desire to play battling the potent laziness that prevents you from driving 3 hours to an event. This is why when The Encounter in Allentown, PA, my favorite local shop, was hosting a $1,000 Legacy event on a Saturday I jumped at the occasion to only have to drive 10 minutes to show off my marginal magic skills.
I decided to pop in on FNM the night before to see if there was any buzz on the following day’s tournament. Let me tell you, the place was Xantid Swarming with magic players. I scoured the room and noticed a group of serious legacy players jamming games in the back. I scrambled to make my way to them-I had no time to point at devastating misplays occurring on tables filled with first time FNMers, no time to sit down at tables with binders open swapping juicy trade after juicy trade. I finally made it to my destination. Standing tall and proud, unphased by my tantalizing surroundings, I whipped out my deck and pleaded with the legacy ringers, “Can you help me make my deck better?”
I presented them with a UR Delver list that was pretty standard but I had decided to try out Thunderous Wraths in the build. One of the players (who would end up in the finals of Jupiter Games’ 3k the following day) took a look at it, shrugged, and stated, “You know there is a relationship between the amount of Thunderous Wraths run and how high the deck placed at StarCityGames last weekend?” I knew what he was referring to as there were four UR lists that placed: the two lists that ran 0 Thunderous Wraths placed 5-8 and 9-16 while the two lists that ran 4 and 3 both placed 17-32. I went home and thought about this long and hard. When my roommate came to wake me up the next morning my room was covered in writing with more algebraic formulas and quantum theories than John Nash’s when he was creating his economic theory. “I have made the perfect deck! With the variance of starting hands containing Thunderous Wraths, based on the probability of drawing Brainstorm to put them back, multiplied by-”
“Hey Keith can I borrow a deck for today?”
Screw it. I tossed him my UR deck and decided to play Esper Stoneblade instead.
Justin and I rolled up to the Encounter in the usual fashion-with zero playtesting, more optimism than ability, and two netdecks that had more stock listed components than the S&P 500. My list was as follows
*Nature’s Ruin because I’m a boss/couldn’t find a second Perish
I knew our local meta contained a lot of burn, however with 38 people I didn’t expect to play it so much that I would regret not bringing Aloe lotion.
I found myself across from a nice, intelligent guy who was still new to the game. He led with a Goblin Guide and proceeded to play very tight. I took burn spell after burn spell and did not have a Swords for the early guide. The little gobo did allow me to draw 3 free cards (with the help of a Brainstorm of course). He cast Keldon Marauders, I nodded that it resolved, and he moved to his attack step without assigning the Marauder trigger to my head. I opted not to assist him in killing me so I held my tongue. Afterwards I looked up the ruling and Article 14: Section 2.9.A states, “Due to the new lapsing trigger rule, you may be a scumbag Keith, but you are not obligated to tell your opponent as it’s optional.” After I dropped a Batterskull with Stoneforge Mystic it was time to attack and stabilize. With me at 5 life I sent the life saving germ token into battle. Before damage he sent a Bolt to my face to put me at 2, then another to end try and end the game. I had a Force for the second and went to 1 life with the additional cost. Guess those lapsing triggers do make a difference…
Game 2 I found a Leyline of Sanctity in my opener and felt rather cozy all game. With some Lingering Souls to protect my Jace, The Mind Sculptor it was only a matter of time before the planeswalker kindly asked my opponent to exile his deck then make his hand his library.
My opponent was a suave speaking, intimidating shuffler, Justin Bieber hair cut kind of guy. Turn one I fetched up an Underground Sea and Inquisitioned him. While I had Bieber fever I also felt I had a good matchup-he was playing RUG Tempo. He had mulliganed and now contained a hand of: Tarmogoyf, Brainstorm, Vapor Snag, and 3 Lands. I took the Brainstorm and knew I had to play around the Snag. I did not see a Stoneforge but saw enough lands to naturally play Batterskull. A swords dealt with the Goyf while I waited until I had a Force/Pitch to beat the snag on my Germ token. Some quick math. A 4/4 Lifelink, Vigilance> 3/2 Flier.
Game 2 I swords a Delver on turn 2 and watched him Ponder/shuffle numerous times. My girls decided to run from me (story of my life) as I did not see a single Stoneforge Mystic. Staring at a Goyf across from me was annoying until I drew an Inquisition and he revealed no countermagic. I cast Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and the tokens bit the bullet for the big guy until I drew a Swords and dealt with his Goyf. Like most planeswalkers left unattended, Sorin won the game by himself.
After looking at the name I was paired against I wanted to just sign the match slip and go get some lunch. My opponent was a local whom I knew was playing Dredge that day. I prayed 3 Extirpate would be enough. SPOILER ALERT! It wasn’t…..
Unless you want to hear about how insanely quick my opponent created an army of 2/2 zombies while I sat there and did nothing lets move on to round 4.
I was up against the famous Ben Green playing the Bloodbraid Elf, Guided Passage, Punishing Fire version of RUG: a grindier deck with a better late game and an awful matchup for me. Knowing he has Bloodbraid Elf means he can’t play Daze-it is miserable to Cascade into. This meant that I could shove out Stoneforge on Turn 2. I did just this and expected her to be burned the following turn before she got active. Instead he cast Force of Will to counter her. This told me he had no removal in hand, so I forced back. With a look of disgust he acknowledged the soon to be 4/4 Lifelink, Vigilance and the inevitability of losing this game.
He did have the burn for my turn 2 Stoneforge. Problem for him was I had a second Stoneforge. Missing his 4th land drop gave me the green light to Wasteland a vital Tropical Island. After that it was all she wrote.
Another Goblin Guide came crashing in turn 1. This time it was cast via a Volcanic Island so UR it is. Knowing my opponent to be an employee of a card shop in Blue Bell, PA I figured him a strong enough player to not play volatile cards like Thunderous Wrath (I mean honestly, who plays that card?). This meant I didn’t have to worry about taking 5 for one red but what I would have to worry about was his solid play skill. On turn 2 I Swords his Goblin Guide, then Inquisitioned him. A Brainstorm in response meant I wasn’t getting anything good-showing me all lands meant not getting anything at all. I played a Stoneforge the following turn and figured he had hid a Bolt on top. You are correct sir, and your Stoneforge is dead. Goblin Guide was the other card hiding on top and came at me the following turn. I cast Lingering Souls which stopped the clock and was able to Brainstorm into another Stoneforge. She got me a Jitte, but more importantly was able to vial in Batterskull to evade any counter magic. Once the Germ got the Jitte I had gotten the win.
The term “one for one” comes to mind when I think of this game. I had two swords for his two threats (Goblin Guide and Delver) while he had a Spell Pierce for my Jace. I cast Inquisition and was met with 2 Lightning Bolts before seeing his hand. It looked a lot like mine-all lands. I drew a Jitte and played it, then watched him play a land and pass. I prayed for a Lingering Souls but the forces that be granted me a Force of Will. The game was so exciting that a few turns later, after drawing nothing but lands, I was forced to Force his mighty Delver of Secrets. He drew as much burn as I drew lands and took the game.
A tight game but one that once again I did not see Stoneforge Mystic. Normally Swords for their threats and Lingering Souls to protect Jace is enough to win: enter Sulfur Elemental. I can not stress how much of a beating this card is in the match up. You spend mana on Lingering Souls, you pass the turn, and they end step a 3/2 that can’t be countered and nukes your board. While I resolved a Sorin to stand in battle next to my Jace, his end step Snapcasters and Price of Progresses were too mighty. I extended my hand and best wishes for him in the top 8. He told me I was a good player (maybe he wasn’t as smart as I thought) and that he hoped to see me there too.
Round 6-Final round of swiss
My tiebreaker at this point was solid and I felt with a win here, and an overall record of 4-2, I would squeak my way into 7th or 8th place. Turn one he played Volcanic Island, Lava Spike. Really…burn again? The fact that he was playing blue but had Lava Spike lead me to believe he was running a traditional burn deck with blue for Brainstorm but no Delvers. On my turn I cast Inquisition and saw a hand of: Thunderous Wrath (go variance!), Searing Blaze, Price of Progress, Price of Progress, Land. I looked at my hand, winked at Stoneforge Mystic, and stripped his Searing Blaze. The top of his deck had not been kind and it looked like Stoneforge Mystic was going to survive the pivotal turn. Fetching basics to avoid serious Price damage while connecting with the Batterskull was all that was needed to go to game 2.
I opened with a hand of Force of Will, Brainstorm, Inquisition, Lingering Souls, Lingering Souls, 2 Lands. Nodding for the keep he opened with Volcanic Island, Brainstorm. “I wondered if anyone has ever Force of Willed a turn one Brainstorm before…” I thought to myself. I figured that if he had a Thunderous Wrath in hand than countering the Brainstorm essentially makes him lose a card since he will never cast it. Another factor was that if he was drawing cards on turn one and not burning me, he could be digging for lands in an already land light deck. With an Inquisition at the ready and Lingering Souls as a clock I decided the Force was the right play. With a shocked, upset look he did not draw three cards. On my turn I cast Inquisition and saw Thunderous Wrath, Price, Ponder, land, and a Lava Spike. Happy about the force and even happier that I could take his Ponder and leave him with a weak hand; I stripped the draw spell and passed the turn back. I was fine with taking 3 from his Lava Spike as I had drawn a land and was ready to go to work with some souls. I ended up drawing a Stoneforge Mystic which gave me a nice insurance policy. Now not only was he on a clock but his draws were getting weaker as I was going to be gaining life. The tiebreaker came through and I was off to top 8.
Fitting I would be playing Justin (and my Frankenstein monster of a UR build) in the first round of top 8. After the typical taunting and banter it was time to get down to business. Like clockwork I was on the play and ended up taking 2 before Swordsing a Goblin Guide on my second turn. I jammed Lingering Souls on Turn 3 and played Jitte turn 4 (with no 4th land to equip it). I went to equip Jitte the following turn and he Snapcaster Bolted my token. I could not afford to Force either the Mage or Bolt because he had a 4th land to Spell Pierce me and absolutely blow me out. I had to simply hope the following turn I could equip/connect with my remaining token or make more if he had another Bolt. He did not, the Jitte got counters, and the game ended.
The tales of victory from today have not included one thing-flipped Delvers. This tale tells of two of them- and it is a tale of defeat. He had Delvers and Spell Pierces which gave me permission for flying bodies but no cool equipment or planeswalkers to back them up. With nothing relevant in hand I had to attempt to double block his pair of flipped Delvers. On two sequential combat phases, with one card in hand each time, he had Lightning Bolt then Snapcaster to make sure his Delvers kept alive and in the sky, and made sure we went to game 3.
Game 3 played out the way a game three should play out: him getting me down to 9 life before I started to stabilize. He played a very tight game and kept 3 unknown cards in hand the whole time. When it was time to make my move and connect with Jitte on a spirit token he cast Smash to Smithereens on the game winning equipment. Not wanting to go to 6 life (in Price+Bolt/Chain range), and with a Snapcaster to get back Disenchant if he had a Sulfuric Vortex, I opted to Disenchant my own Jitte to fizzle his Smash. I was able to draw into a Stoneforge a few turns later and fetch up old reliable: Batterskull. He slammed down a Sulfuric Vortex and hoped the game was wrapped up. That card is to Esper Stoneblade what Roger Fedderer is to Andy Roddick-unbeatable (tennis anyone?). Fortunately I had an ace up my sleeve (no pun intended) and cast Snapcaster-Disenchant to deal with the Vortex and crashed in with the Germ. After cordial congratulations and an extended hand from Justin I looked around to see the other 3 semi-finalists hovering around me. “Want to 4 way chop?” Looking at the UR player who beat me round 5, a dredge player who beat me round 3, and an unknown I decided to make like the Steve Miller Band and take the money and run.
Esper has always been my favorite archetype and I (with the help of some net decking) continue to try and make it work in every format. While this deck is very versatile and has a solid match up versus most the field, and with a dedicated sideboard can get you out of a lot of jams, the rise of one particular deck makes me worried about playing this at my next event: Sneak and Show. The addition of Griselbrand has given this deck an insane amount of power. If they can’t swing at you with a 15/15 protection from removal/sack your board then they will draw 7 cards and do so the following turn. Stoneblade just doesn’t have a fast enough clock to put on Sneak Show while both sides try and assemble enough counter magic to fight over Show and Tell/ Sneak Attack. Even more slots will need to be dedicated to the sideboard for this matchup to consider it winnable.
As for now I will continue to not playtest enough, look for local events I won’t have to drive very far to, find deck lists that perform well online, and manage to butcher those decklists by making them to my liking. I will continue to lead the life of a mediocre magic player…
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