Last Thursday night (really Friday morning), I took the redeye to Nashville, arriving at the very civilized hour of 10 am. Most people recoil in horror when they hear that, but I’m actually a fan of such a schedule. I have a superpower, according to BenS, and that power is the ability to sleep anytime, anywhere. He isn’t the first to be jealous, and honestly, possessing that ability goes a really long way towards making all the travel I do palatable, and even enjoyable. I got on the plane in San Francisco at 1am, slept until it landed in Minneapolis, barely caught my connection, and slept for another hour and a half until I got to Nashville. It was 10am, I had essentially gotten a normal night’s sleep, and I was ready to spend a day durdling. Perfect! I think I’m going to redeye more often, going forward, since it worked out so well this time.

I spent a pleasant day with BillyP and professional Magic player and Starcitygames Invitational Champion Pat Cox, and after signing up seven people for the Grand Prix (much to the amusement of Donnie, the TO), I was ready for my sealed.

After about a minute of looking at my sealed, I was fairly sure I wasn’t making day two. I don’t mean that I just gave up, but my deck had the following going for it:

- it was GW splashing [card]Wild Hunger[/card] (powerful splash)

- it was playing [card]Selfless Cathar[/card], [card]Rebuke[/card], and [card]Jar of Eyeballs[/card], despite being aggressive

- besides [card]Mayor of Avacyn[/card] and [card]Elder of Laurels[/card], it had no good cards

Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled. I contemplated other builds besides GW, but I didn’t have a powerful build in any color combination, so at least by building an aggressive deck I would have a chance of mising the better decks I’d be facing every round.

After a few short rounds, I was 5-3, dead, and happy to be done with that particular deck. I guess I was paying for how far above the curve my deck at GP SeaTac was. This deck was a 3, that deck was an 8 or so, and that averages out reasonably well. Plus, I’d rather get an 8 and a 3 than two 5.5’s, since at least there you have a good shot at going 8-1 or 9-0 and x-3 instead of going 7-2 and 6-3.

So, I was in Nashville, and had Sunday to kill. After unsuccessfully looking for a UB deck, I showed up at the site around 8:30, planning on playing in the draft challenge. I was talking with Shaheen Soorani, expensive Sorcery master for those who don’t know him, and mentioned how I wanted to play in the Starcitygames Elite Invitational Qualifier (it sounded like this event had Protection from Werewolves, Zombies, and Vampires), but had no deck. He said he had his Esper Planeswalkers deck on him, and it had a Karn in it. Did I want to borrow it?

Karn, you say?

Sold!

After his girlfriend generously made the trek back to her car to grab the deck, since parking at the Grand Ol Opry is nothing short of maze-like, I had a deck and was ready to battle. As is the custom when handed a deck, I didn’t change a single card:

[deck]4 Mana Leak
3 Lingering Souls
3 Liliana of the Veil
3 Think Twice
3 Day of Judgment
3 Curse of Death's Hold
2 Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
2 Gideon Jura
2 Consecrated Sphinx
2 Tragic Slip
2 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Snapcaster Mage
1 Go for the Throat
1 Doom Blade
1 Batterskull
4 Seachrome Coast
1 Darkslick Shores
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Isolated Chapel
3 Evolving Wilds
5 Swamp
3 Plains
2 Island
Sideboard
3 Celestial Purge
3 Ratchet Bomb
3 Geist of Saint Traft
3 Despise
1 Batterskull
1 Volition Reins
1 Karn Liberated[/deck]

Shaheen has written at length about the deck, including his last article, but I wanted to talk about my thoughts.

It was an interesting experience, playing a deck I had no hand in, up to and including not changing a single card. Even when I start testing, I often make a tweak or two before I begin, such as cutting cards I despise. In this case, that’s exactly what I’m talking about, but I still followed the unwritten rule of the last-minute audible. It’s kind of liberating, even, since I could put my fate in someone else’s hands.

The tournament went quite well. After going 5-0, I IDed twice into Top 8, where I promptly split the finals. I would have even played it out, but Shaheen understandably wanted to start on his 12 hour drive home, and I kind of did have his deck, so I split the money and handed him back the deck. He wouldn’t even let me buy him dinner, he’s that nice a guy.

After getting back home myself, I threw the deck together on MTGO, and started battling. It continued to do well, and now I feel qualified to talk about what I like and don’t like about the list (more the former than the latter).

It Crushes Aggro

The combination of [card]Lingering Souls[/card], [card]Day of Judgment[/card], Planeswalkers, and [card]Curse of Death's Hold[/card] is really brutal for aggro, and the Snapcasters plus spot removal don’t hurt. If they overextend, Day crushes them, and if they start slowly, Planeswalkers put them further and further behind. Once you get multiple Planeswalkers going, it’s just over. Every turn, they try and deal with the first ‘Walker, but don’t quite get there, then you play another, use both, and they repeat the process. Once you outnumber them three to one, it’s all over but the crying. Lingering Souls also dovetails nicely with both the Wrath plan and the Walker plan, since it forces them to overextend and protects your Walkers, as well as just being broken in general.

In general, [card]Ratchet Bomb[/card] is excellent against aggro, and [card]Celestial Purge[/card] overlaps well here too. Your matchup against Zombies, BW or WG Tokens, RG Aggro, and monoR is excellent, with Humans being a little tougher to handle.

As with any control deck, you are looking to survive more than anything, and it doesn’t hurt that most of your removal spells stick around and cast something every turn (Gideon, Sorin, Liliana).

There are a few changes you could make if you expect to see an abundance of aggressive decks:

There really should be a fourth [card]Lingering Souls[/card] in the maindeck, and that’s one of the changes I made relatively early in testing (cutting a Doom Blade).

Adding 1-2 [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] and another [card]Tragic Slip[/card] to the sideboard helps against the really fast decks, and Timely in particular is awesome against Zombies, RG Aggro and Burn. It does overlap with Lingering Souls, but it is so crushingly good that it’s worth it. It also makes Snapcaster much better, and I was always a huge fan of Timely in my old Esper deck.

Cards I look to cut vs aggro: [card]Mana Leak[/card], [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] if needed

It Goes Over the Top of Ramp

One of the side effects of most of your removal being Planeswalker-based is that you don’t have that many dead cards against midrange decks. Normally, decks like this suffer against Ramp-style decks (which includes [card]Birthing Pod[/card]), but when you are packing Planeswalkers, you have a legitimate path to victory even if you draw many of your “anti-aggro” cards. While it is true that drawing all Wraths isn’t great, even Curse of Death’s Hold shuts off [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card], making [card]Primeval Titan[/card] way less scary than it normally is. Pod is a little easier, since they have more creatures, but they still have a plan of ramping up threats, just using a creature curve instead of a mana-based one.

Here is where the Despises come in, but as I mentioned earlier, I definitely support cutting at least one from the sideboard. Despise is just a bad card, and even though playing a couple might be a necessary evil, I doubt you’ll find me playing three. Besides the Karn and the Volition Reins, I like a [card]Jace, Memory Adept[/card] in the board. It’s yet another Planeswalker, and you can’t have enough of those!

Cards I look to cut against Ramp/Pod decks: Spot removal, [card]Lingering Souls[/card], [card sorin, lord of innistrad]Sorin[/card], [card]Batterskull[/card] (they always side in [card ancient grudge]Grudge[/card] if they see the maindeck one)

Of course, it isn’t all upside...

Control

When I say “control”, I mostly mean UB Control, since it’s the most pure control deck in the format. Lingering Souls certainly helps here, but the overall matchup does not seem to favor Esper. UB is just too good at playing the control role, and Curse of Death’s Hold for the tokens plus removal spells, hard counters, and Drownyards is pretty tough to beat. A resolved Planeswalker is pretty good, as long as it isn’t Gideon (who just gets Doom Bladed), but even that isn’t enough to beat something like [card]Grave Titan[/card] with [card]Dissipate[/card] backup.

Sideboarding a few big spells plus three Geist of Saint Traft is a good start, but I really wouldn’t take Esper into a UB-infested metagame. Luckily, that doesn’t appear to exist, so Esper away.

Cards I look to cut against control: everything

Delver is Still Delver

Lastly, Delver is still about as tough to beat as it usually is. Despite all the good anti-Delver cards (Curse, Lingering Souls, Liliana), turn one Delver flipping [card]Mana Leak[/card] is still a favorite, and a quick [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] can run away with the game. Siding in Ratchet Bombs helps somewhat, since a turn one Delver is your biggest weakness, but Delver is like Faeries: no matter what, obtaining a highly favorable matchup is very unlikely to occur.

Cards I look to cut against Delver: [card]Mana Leak[/card]

The Evolution of Esper

Despite liking the current build a fair amount, there is definitely room for changes. Besides what I’ve already mentioned (-1 Doom Blade, +1 Lingering Souls, sideboard changes), here are some of the other cards I’ve had good experiences with while playtesting earlier builds of Esper.

[draft]white sun's zenith[/draft]

This is a great 1-of, since it provides a game-ending threat at instant speed, all for the low, low cost of every white source in the deck. Especially in a deck with Consecrated Sphinx, I like having 1 WSZ to draw to, and being able to slam it EOT against a control deck is very important.

[draft]elesh norn, grand cenobite[/draft]

Another card on the “if it resolves, you win” list, Elesh V is the best curve-topper in aggressive matchups. As is, the deck doesn’t need a ton of help in that regard, but Elesh is worth keeping in mind. I could see one of the Curses becoming this.

[draft]oblivion ring[/draft]

The main reason the deck doesn’t have Rings, from what I can tell, is that Lingering Souls and Liliana are way more powerful and cost the same amount of mana. True as that is, there still could easily be room for a Ring or two, since they never really disappoint. This deck is a little more proactive than previous Esper decks, so maybe Ring isn’t needed to threaten Planeswalkers anymore, but it is nice having outs to anything. Plus, you can’t crash MTGO with three O-rings unless you play a couple.

[draft]Grave Titan
Sun titan[/draft]

Sun Titan is a little outside the scope of the current build, even if it works quite well with Liliana. I’d want to add Phantasmal Image and Ghost Quarter before I went too deep here, and that’s almost an entirely different deck. Grave Titan, on the other hand, is not only more castable than Consecrated Sphinx, it is way less Doom Blade-able. The main reason not to play Gravedad is that it is almost overkill; the matchups where Grave Titan is at his best, you are already pretty strong. The one exception is UB Control, where I’d much rather have the Titan, so if you expect to play against UB often (and don’t feel like switching decks), Titan might be the call.

[draft]Phantasmal Image
tribute to hunger
flashfreeze
revoke existence
oblivion ring
blue sun's zenith[/draft]

I grouped this somewhat odd collection of cards together because they are all sideboard options currently not being used. Tribute and Phantasmal Image are mainly to stop Thrun and Geist of Saint Traft, but Liliana, Gideon, and Sorin all do their part in that area. I like Flashfreeze, and wouldn’t be against boarding one or two, especially if ramp is big. Revoke is mainly for Pod, since equipment don’t seem to do all that well against this deck, but O-Ring might end up just being better. Lastly, Blue Sun’s Zenith (USZ?) is yet another sick 1-of against Control, if such a thing is needed.

Walking the Planes with Esper

Speaking of Walking the Planes, you are really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t check out Nate and Shawn’s latest video, the first of the series - it’s pretty awesome.

If you want to fiddle with Esper, here is the list I’d start with:

[deck]4 Mana Leak
4 Lingering Souls
3 Liliana of the Veil
3 Think Twice
3 Day of Judgment
2 Curse of Death's Hold
2 Sorin, Lord of Innistrad
2 Gideon Jura
2 Consecrated Sphinx
2 Tragic Slip
2 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Snapcaster Mage
1 Go for the Throat
2 open slots
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Isolated Chapel
2 Drowned Catacomb
3 Evolving Wilds
4 Swamp
3 Plains
2 Island
Sideboard
3 Ratchet Bomb
3 Geist of Saint Traft
2 Celestial Purge
2 Despise
1 Batterskull
1 Volition Reins
1 Karn Liberated
2 open slots[/deck]

If you notice, that leaves you with two open slots in the main, and two in the board, along with a slightly different manabase than the original list. I’d probably select at least one expensive card for a maindeck slot, with something like one Elesh Norn and one Ratchet Bomb (while subtracting one in the sideboard) as a reasonable call. I like 1-ofs, what can I say?

Sideboards can and should vary by area, and I’ve offered plenty of potential suggestions (though they are by no means exhaustive).

This deck is a blast to play, fairly customizable, and in any metagame that isn’t filled to the brim with control decks, really good. Thanks again to Shaheen for both providing me with a deck to play in the tournament, but an article topic for this week, and if you enjoyed this, you should go back and read the article of his I linked to, because he might know a thing or two about this deck as well.

LSV

I forgot to include a sample hand with last week’s article, so I’ll leave you with some nice ones this week:

Conley’s sealed from Nashville:

[draft]swamp
plains
isolated chapel
murder of crows
increasing vengeance
skirsdag cultist
soul seizer[/draft]

Shuhei’s Top 8 draft deck:

[draft]trepanation blade
shriekgeist
young wolf
frightful delusion
island
swamp
forest[/draft]

Seriously, Shuhei? You selected these cards, intentionally, and were trying to win the draft?!