Modern season is finally over, and unfortunately for me I’ll be watching the Pro Tour from my house this time. The good news, however, is that Standard season is here and for the first time in a long time I feel as though the format isn’t dull. While preparing for Pro Tour Montreal, I found a plethora of new archetypes that were viable against a Standard gauntlet. But with a lack of testing time available before the TCG Orlando 5K, I leaned heavily on Esper Control, an existing archetype popularized by Ben Stark.
Testing … Testing …
I spent my limited amount of time playing against what I thought would be popular. Naya Blitz and Junk Reanimator had won the most recent Grand Prix events, so I was expecting these decks in reasonable numbers. I started with the same 75 that Ben Stark piloted to a Top 4 finish at Pro Tour Montreal, but I quickly noticed the need for changes in order to have a reasonable chance against the incredibly fast Naya Blitz and the grindy Junk Reanimator. After changing some things around, I came up with the following:
Esper Control by John Cuvelier
Most notably, I’ve added Terminus, Syncopate, and Tribute to Hunger to fight the hyper-aggressive decks; they also all have reasonable applications against reanimator-style decks. But most importantly, I changed enough cards in the deck so it’s much harder for an opponent familiar with Ben’s list to predict what’s coming from mine. If they see a Syncopate, for example, they may be more inclined to wait until I have tapped enough mana to try and resolve an important spell. When that spell ultimately meets a Dissipate, I probably gained some extra time or turns in the game.
The Main Event
I left my house early Saturday morning for the two-hour trek to Orlando. My group got there a little after 9 a.m. and met up with the usual Florida grinders. We all spent an hour catching up and talking about upcoming tournaments, and I even got to see the mythical Floridian Frank Lepore before the event got started. Speaking of getting started, the event was delayed per usual because there were so many players. Although the more than 300 players was a bigger showing than any PTQ (which always blows my mind), the number doesn’t really faze me anymore. All it means is there’s another round or two. If you plan on winning, the quantity of rounds doesn’t matter.
After the brief delay, the tournament began and I didn’t. I still had points from doing well at the last 5K and winning a 1K last year. I used those points for byes so I didn’t have to start playing until Round 3. I used my extra downtime to scout out the field and watch friends play, taking notes of what I thought they did right or wrong. Call me good guy Cuvi.
Rounds 1-2 — Bye
Round 3 — Gb Fight Club (Djamel Medragh)
The list popularized by Brian Kibler features cards like Strangleroot Geist, Predator Ooze, and Ulvenwald Tracker. This is a deck that has a lot of tools to make the life of Esper fairly miserable. The only thing more miserable is how many times he had to mulligan. He went down to five both games, so he didn’t put up much of a fight.
Win 2-0, Overall 3-0
Round 4 — Rb Aggro (Jonathan Rauscher)
A very stock RDW with a light black splash for Bump in the Night. I could tell he wasn’t a very experienced player based on how talkative he was about minor things like my signed lands or Grand Prix playmat. I stabilized Game 1 with a Sphinx’s Revelation that found me another one, which is all that is ever required to beat an aggro deck. Game 2 is similar as I wrath him Turn 4 and lay a Witchbane Orb on Turn 5. When I Revelation a few turns later, he is forced to awkwardly enough Skullcrack himself to prevent me from gaining life. It didn’t matter however, as I drew plenty of countermagic and Gloom Surgeons to secure a victory.
Win 2-0, Overall 4-0
Round 5 — Naya Blitz (Onel Dalmau)
I’m on the play again, thankfully, and have a well-timed Supreme Verdict for his army of dudes. I use Sphinx’s Revelation to get some extra life and action before wrathing his board again to secure an easy victory. In Game 2 I take the Gloom Surgeon approach, slowing him down long enough to find a wrath before eventually finding a Revelation.
Win 2-0, Overall 5-0
Round 6 — RG Aggro (Brian Hardie)
This was a homebrew that featured Turn 2 Gyre Sage, Turn 3 double Strangleroot Geist, and Turn 4 Hellrider. I manage to kill them all and stabilize at one life with a Supreme Verdict. Unfortunately, he untaps and plays his third Strangleroot Geist for the win. I keep a four-land hand in Game 2 and somehow manage to end the game with four lands despite the game going to Turn 9 or 10. I even Dimir Charmed myself to look for land.
Loss 0-2, Overall 5-1
Round 7 — RWB Midrange (Steve Poirier)
He offers up a Turn 3 Liliana of the Veil on the play, with the following three turns spent discarding Lingering Souls. After the ultimate on Liliana, I staged quite the comeback. But just as I’m about to take control of the game, a well-timed topdeck in Rakdos’s Return finished me off. Game 2 was another mana stumble for me. The other issue was I used Duress on Turn 4 after Syncopating his Liliana on Turn 3. His hand contained two Vampire Nighthawks, Pithing Needle, Obzedat, Ghost Council, Olivia Voldaren, and Blasphemous Act. (You can’t legitimately board in Blasphemous Act against Esper unless you’ve lost your mind.) I take the Pithing Needle only for him to immediately draw Liliana, which eventually was too much to overcome.
Loss 0-2, Overall 5-2
Round 8 — Humaninator (Jim Bishop)
Knowing what Bishop is playing beforehand because we are friends means I know this is a nightmare matchup. That’s especially true because my only way to win Game 1 is to mill him out and the only way he really wins is by using his graveyard. But a very long and grindy 35-minute game resulted in me barely squeaking out the win. I miss two land drops in Game 2 and struggle to stay in the game. (For a deck with 27 lands and lots of card draw, I sure do have trouble hitting my early land drops.) Anyway, the game goes on fighting off his combo with disruption and countermagic until he manages to combo me off in extra turns because I didn’t have the mana to combat it any longer. If I had only missed one land drop, I would have drawn Dimir Charm for his Unburial Rites and would have won the match. Instead, with the match potentially tied at 1-1, he concedes to prevent us from both being knocked out of Top 16. I end up splitting prizes evenly with him as he finishes 31st and I finish 11th.
Going through Changes
It was a reasonable finish considering the amount of land issues I had throughout the day. I also called the metagame fairly well and am glad about that. Moving forward, I would make some minor adjustments to the deck.
We need to cut the Ghost Quarter from the main deck, and having another land that helps fix my mana could have gone a long way. Losing the ability to gain a slight edge in the mirror match by destroying opposing Nephalia Drownyards to be a little more consistent against everything seems like an obvious decision. A third Terminus is something I also wanted access to; cutting the Planar Cleansing will make us weaker against Jund but better against every aggressive deck. I also considered moving out Dimir Charm, but the flexibility of the card in answering numerous archetypes will keep it around for now.
The sideboard performed fairly well, although I did not get to fully utilize a few of the cards. I recognize my aggressive matchups have improved, but my midrange Jund and Junk matchups are much harder. Planar Cleansing is important against these decks full of planeswalkers, but I feel as though they see these coming now. Not to mention having Planar Cleansing in your deck while boarding in Witchbane Orb in those same matchups can be quite awkward. The best solution might be to cut the Planar Cleansing entirely. Although Purify the Grave is a good solution to Junk Rites, it doesn’t really cut it for the Humaninator decks, and I think we can safely add a single Tormod’s Crypt. This will add diversity and make it even harder for our opponents to play around cards.
Although this will be my current list, I’m sure testing via Magic Online may yield a different 75 than what I just provided. But hopefully this will give you an idea of where I’m taking the deck if you want to jump on board the Esper train. With SCG Orlando and the SCG Invitational coming up in the next few weeks, I’ll need to get through all the testing I can. I’ll have to temporarily put that on the back burners though, as I have GP Pittsburgh this weekend where I’m hoping for another shot at my first Grand Prix Top 8.
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