This week won’t be about Esper Control, in a departure from the last few weeks. I’ve included my updated Esper list at the end of the article because readers have asked me about it, but this week I wanted to take a look at some of the lesser known strategies that made a splash this past weekend.
Burn could be the most polarizing deck in Standard right now. It went from 2% of the metagame on Magic Online to almost 10% and started putting up finishes at larger tournaments. Now that it’s a known quantity and people have a better grasp on what is and isn’t important, it is winning less. Before, I was a dog with Esper and I thought all the black decks were in the same boat, but now the deck feels like Fish. Masters will continue to overcome the low power level, and everyone else will keep trying to exploit the angles that were open a few weeks ago. Unfortunately for everyone else, the meta has caught up.
Originally I felt that the Esper/Burn match was miserable and I was like 30/70 or 35/65 at best on the Esper side without red hate in the sideboard. Over time, and with the addition of Last Breath, I felt better about the matchup with a legitimate two-mana answer to both Chandra’s Phoenix and Mutavault. I also slowly figured out my sequencing against the deck and what mana people tended to respect (buying me a turn) and what they didn’t. Most importantly, I learned that Jace, Architect of Thought is both the best draw engine and defender in the match. Sphinx’s Revelation was nice and usually got me into stable range, but Jace did the most work early on to let me survive to cast Revelation.
Even then, most game 1s against Burn come down to either resolving a key spell and everything cascades your way, or they have the lethal burn/Skullcrack to put the game out of reach. Game two, on the other hand, is vastly different, and demonstrates the difference a good sideboard plan can make in Standard. You get to board out all your expensive win-conditions and your dead removal for Thoughtseize, Dispel, Negate, and hopefully Blind Obedience and Fiendslayer Paladin. Though Blood Baron of Vizkopa, Archangel of Thune, and Nightveil Specter all help in their own ways.
So where does this leave burn players? Well it’s time to adapt if the top percentage of the players are all going to be on Esper or decks like MBC. Young Pyromancer was a pretty lousy choice a few weeks ago, but it plays way better against MBC and Esper than Ash Zealot does. Burning Earth wasn’t a hedge I really wanted back then either, but against a deck with Blind Obedience it’s better than any creature option we have. What it also does it force Esper to lean heavily on white cards that Glare of Heresy beats post-board.
Now you may not be on board with this kind of reactive plan, but a resolved Blind Obedience or Fiendslayer Paladin on-curve probably puts Esper at like 75% to win. They can still brick off, but the amount of life each card gains that can’t easily be reduced via Skullcrack is pretty major. Burning Earth is your best chance to answer that by forcing Esper to either Detention Sphere immediately or severely limit their mana. The best part is you don’t have to turn four a Burning Earth for it to be effective, it’ll get a little worse, but having played both sides under a Burning Earth I can safely say it doesn’t magically become dead because it hit play on turn eight.
What you need to do post-board is the same thing that Esper is doing. Take out the burn that isn’t doing much for you (Nice Shock, bro) and swap in cards that either punish Esper for tapping out or force them to react immediately when they hit play.
This is the elephant in the room in any discussion of Standard. Commonly referred to as “Not a real deck” and otherwise thoroughly cursed out, it’s hard to take this deck seriously at times. Jacob Maynard, who Top 8’d GP Cincinatti this weekend, had this to say about the deck, “(I played) Naya Hexproof (Auras) because it’s the Standard Affinity deck.”
This is the kind of deck that simply doesn’t work most of the time. Either the raw power isn’t enough to overcome the weak support cards or the metagame just has too much splash damage for it to work. Devour Flesh being a common 3- or 4-of in the most popular deck was probably a good reason to dodge this deck for a while. Now we’re at the point where sacrifice effects have dropped a bit in popularity, Supreme Verdict doesn’t provide a great answer to the deck and it isn’t popular enough to really justify sideboard hate.
I’m like 90% to play Esper Control at Grand Prix Phoenix, but that remaining 10% is me continuing to think about just how hard I have to work with normal decks against Naya. While some of the cards are unplayable trash without help, for every Gladecover Scout and Fleecemane Lion, you get Voice of Resurgence and Boros Charm. The other problem is it has a very bad half-and-half syndrome where you can just lose because the deck drew all the support and no creatures. Scry lands help for sure, but against an Esper deck you really end up all-in on seeing a hexproof creature game one.
Post-board is a bit of a different story where you can leverage Voice of Resurgence and Skylasher and can run more anti-Supreme Verdict cards. Boros Charm is definitely the scariest card for control decks and unless you can strip it with Thoughtseize it’s very hard to stay alive to Verdict and Negate on the same turn. As I said, if MBC goes back to Devour Flesh, they can have their way with you barring Voice of Resurgence running interference. Right now the majority only seem to run a pair at the most and Lifebane Zombie is too slow on the draw to hit the key cards in the match.
So that’s where we’re at right now with the deck. If you’re willing to accept that some draws are based totally on one card staying alive so the rest of the hand does anything then I’d recommend it. I would also recommend the following.
2) Eidolon of Countless Battles is still a legitimate card and one of the scariest ones people don’t play. While it loses to Detention Sphere, it does a great job of providing a backup threat and outclasses nearly everything in the GR mirror.
4) The best non-hexproof threat the deck isn’t currently playing is Advent of the Wurm. I would probably need to SB in one or two lands to justify it, but it’s such a powerful card that sees no play right now.
Dredge, it had to be Dredge. The above is the list Ari Lax made Top 16 with at the GP, and while it looks a little odd at first glance, it plays quite well. Ari wrote a great article on the deck and I find his description to best sum up why one would play Dredge. Dredge is a cohesive strategy. Which is true, the only other deck where I feel like most of the parts fit together well is Esper Control and even that has some clunk. Dredge on the other hand has a bunch of hopped up Impulses and some massively undercosted threats. Your filler is also generally better than other filler against many of the other top decks.
Going back to my first complaint, I’ve won more games against Dredge by the deck crapping out on itself than anything my decks did. Which is also an argument for playing Dredge, since when you do hit your mana, you are likely a favorite against any top deck in the format. Dredge is the same as Naya Hexproof right now, an underrated linear strategy in a format of decks trying to play fair. The games where it’s forced to play fair also feature better cards against control strategies, which is a great place to be after the Esper weekend.
It wouldn’t shock me if Esper players found the room to play a Rest in Peace or Crypt Incursion to hedge against this strategy as these tend to be ones that spike in popularity for a tournament. If I were playing this weekend I may consider spending a slot or two against this type of deck. Just like against burn, your sideboard cards may be limited in use, but when you land them you’ll be a massive favorite to win that particular match.
My build before this weekend was more or less the same as JJ Punts’ (Jason Janasiewicz, grats on the win buddy!) for the LA Open with Gainsay being two Blood Baron of Vizkopa. Moving forward, I want to adopt the Nightveil Specter plan, at least for this week. Depending on how much removal people leave in, it may be worthwhile to go this route, but right now it seems like a reasonable board plan.
If I weren’t running Nightveil Specter, then I’d run a 2nd Fiendslayer Paladin, 2nd Negate, Pithing Needle, and Hero’s Downfall. I think a heavier black version with more Hero’s Downfalls and Thoughtseizes, closer to UB Control splashing Sphinx’s Revelation and Detention Sphere, may be a better way to go if the Esper mirror becomes the new most common matchup. Hero’s Downfall provides a lot more play in the mirror at instant speed and would see heavy play in Esper if the mana weren’t already so stressed.
That’s all for this week. While I’m a little sad I missed LA, I’m booked for GP Phoenix and I’m happy to be attending another ChannelFireball/Cascade GP. Looking forward to it.
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