Legacy Weapon – Drafting Esper in ISD

I was going to write about my build of The Gate this week, but a set of extraordinary circumstances prevented that. For one, as I was registering my deck I found I was testing with a whopping five [card]Phyrexian Obliterator[/card]s, which undoubtedly warped my test results, making me think my deck was a full Obliterator more awesome than it actually was. For two, I managed a swift 0-2 drop, a sharp contrast to my usual performance, and my deck choice has to share in that blame. Some might condemn my decision to play [card]Dark Confidant[/card]s and [card]Hymn to Tourach[/card]s in a field of [card]Spell Snare[/card]s and [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card]s, but I like to think the deck just isn’t playable without the full five [card]Phyrexian Obliterator[/card]s.

Fortunately, I have a backup topic. While I’m not known as a limited player, I’ve put a lot of work into ISD limited, my MODO rating is still above a respectable 1800 after a slew of 8-4s, I’m up more than usual in money drafts, and I just top eighted a draft open with relative ease. None of this makes me a master of the forty cards, but I do have some technology worth sharing.

The Case for Blue

Blue doesn’t always have good removal in the common slot. I remember being happy with [card]Erratic Mutation[/card], much less a [card]Pacifism[/card] that taps the creature down like [card]Claustrophobia[/card]. [card]Narcolepsy[/card] is the most recent comparison, and that card was one of the few reasons I ever went blue in triple Rise draft. Blue’s number of playables seems deeper than usual, too, and solid blue cards go late all the time. [card]Sensory Deprivation[/card] is another [card]Pacifism[/card] effect that goes as late as tenth to thirteenth pick, though some people are starting to catch on. It leaves a chump blocker behind, but that’s not relevant against a deck emphasizing flyers.

Something I’ve noticed recently is that, even though I’ll pick [card]Claustrophobia[/card] over [card]Brimstone Volley[/card] due to color preference, and [card]Brimstone Volley[/card] over [card]Civilized Scholar[/card], my win percentage after sticking a scholar is higher than after resolving either of the other two spells. Perhaps my pick order should be more counter intuitive, favoring the looter over removal, or maybe it’s just that removal gets better in multiples while loot effects worsen. I’ll probably end up picking the removal higher packs one and two, and then the looter in pack three. Regardless, I value the looter highly, but not because he can beat in. That should be a subtle bonus, only used near the end of the game. Getting your draw engine Rebuked or monstrously smitten is not what you want to be doing in this format.

Even with the typical blue countermagic, draw, and filtering, the color is more aggressive than usual. Case in point being the stats on [card]Stitched Drake[/card] and [card]Makeshift Mauler[/card]. Even if you cast these cards a turn or two beyond curve, they’re still great threats and are larger than what blue is used to. Then there’s [card]Skaab Goliath[/card]. Since when does blue get a 6/9 trampler for six? Why would anyone want to play a forest? And the drawback is that I have to be trading off my early threats, looting, or ramping with [card]Deranged Assistant[/card]? Deal.

At the uncommon level, [card]Murder of Crows[/card] is clearly bonkers, both as an [card]Air Elemental[/card] and as a graveyard enabler, but one card that doesn’t get enough credit is [card]Battleground Geist[/card]. Unlike its counterpart in [card]Gallows Warden[/card], the Geist’s bonus is relevant. Evasives don’t gain much from a toughness boost, and pretty much all of the relevant spirits are flyers. Most of them go fairly late too, with only [card]Chapel Geist[/card] being an earlier pick, and even it goes late on occasion. Curving out with [card]Midnight Haunting[/card] into [card]Moon Heron[/card] into [card]Battleground Geist[/card] is a great feeling, and puts the opponent into a position of having to interact fast or just lose.

Even the almost-vanilla [card]Selhoff Occultist[/card] is better than it looks, as it’s yet one more way of dumping creatures into your graveyard. The set has enough two drops for [card]Riot Devils[/card] to perform decently, so adding an upside, in a deeper color, leaves me with a card I’m happy to run.

The Case for Esper

Now that we’ve established my love of blue, what’s next is what colors to pair it with. In general, black and white have enough defensive spells and evasive beaters to compliment what we’re trying to do in blue, but also provide some cheap threats to trade off in the early game, which is something that blue lacks.

But if black and white are so good, why am I always trying to pair them with blue? I admit, after all, that most color combinations in ISD are competitive. Last week, Wrapter crushed me in the finals of an 8-4 with a WB brew full of [card]Altar’s Reap[/card]s, [card]Demonmail Hauberk[/card]s, [card]Thraben Sentry[/card]s, and [card]Elder Cathar[/card]s.

The secret lies in Blue’s threat base. You’re going to get a consistently more powerful deck drafting the blue cards, even when there are more blue drafters at the table. For example, when comparing the [card]Feeling of Dread[/card] decks that I’ve drafted with the [card]Travel Preparations[/card] ones, I can’t help but notice that the [card]Feeling of Dread[/card]’s threats tend to stand up better on their own. Usually the deck with worse creatures gets a tradeoff in synergy, but it isn’t like the [card]Travel Preparations[/card] deck’s threats necessarily benefit from such a boost, as the card [card]Travel Preparations[/card] is what makes curving out with little creatures worthwhile, like a crutch (though there is the human tribe, if that comes together.) While GW is dropping turds and hoping something sticks, UW gets to play large evasives and sweet spells like [card]Rebuke[/card].

White has a lot to offer blue, but black is also a sweet option in that it better compliments graveyard strategies. I tend to force blue and pair it with whichever color is most open, but I made a breakthrough recently when I discovered the Esper deck. The formula is simple, as I’m still jamming blue, but it allows me to cherry pick the best removal and bombs from the other two colors while hedging against the possibility of being cut off. I was initially worried about the mana, but there are enough cantrips, [card]Traveler’s Amulet[/card]s, [card]Shimmering Grotto[/card]s, and the odd [card]Isolated Chapel[/card] to make it work out.

Examples from a Draft Open

I started the KC weekend at 4-1 in standard, and I felt on top of the world. I then proceeded to flood out every remaining match with my twenty two land UR Tempo deck, which had me tilting. The more I played, trying to grind Planeswalker points, the more I tilted, and I wasn’t in a good place at the end of the day.

As I already mentioned, I instantly died in the legacy event on Sunday. I was so far from the fire I was shivering, but I decided to hop into the draft open anyway. I took some small solace in that my fellow legacy columnists weren’t doing much better. By the end of round three, Ari Lax, Drew Levin, and Aj Sacher had all joined me in the draft, with only Gerry Thompson left to top eight.

My first draft passed in a blur, but I remember cracking a [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] and being shipped a [card]Sever the Bloodline[/card]. At that point, I was happy splashing for any of the three colors, and picked up a [card]Wanderer’s Twig[/card] near the end of pack one. Black dried up, as the kid to my right who had shipped me the Sever decided to go black aggro.

Pack two started with a first pick [card]Murder of Crows[/card]. I was shipped a few good ones, including an [card]Evil Twin[/card] and an [card]Unburial Rites[/card]. From the looks of things, I was drafting a sort of limited Solar Flare, which I took as a good sign.

I saw a pair of [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]s during the course of the draft, but had to pick better cards over them both times in [card]Slayer of the Wicked[/card] and [card]Civilized Scholar[/card]. The Scholar is debatable, since Forbidden doesn’t have to live a turn to start binning creatures for [card]Skaab Goliath[/card], but I don’t think the two cards are comparable in terms of power level.

Here’s what I ended up with:

[deck]1 Geist of Saint Traft
1 Evil Twin
1 Unburial Rites
1 Sever the Bloodline
1 Typhoid Rats
1 Stromkirk Patrol
2 Abbey Griffin
1 Cloistered Youth
1 Silverchase Fox
1 Slayer of the Wicked
1 Smite the Monstrous
1 Civilized Scholar
1 Deranged Assistant
1 Fortress Crab
1 Makeshift Mauler
1 Murder of Crows
1 Selhoff Occultist
1 Skaab Goliath
1 Grasp of Phantoms
1 Spectral Flight
1 Blazing Torch
1 Traveler’s Amulet
1 Shimmering Grotto
3 Swamp
6 Plains
7 Island[/deck]

Notable Sideboard Cards:
1 [card]Altar’s Reap[/card]
1 [card]Urgent Exorcism[/card]
1 [card]Night Terrors[/card]

All of my usual concerns popped up. My curve was high, and many of the format’s aggro decks would have their way with me if they had a strong start. While my mana looked good, the little voice in the back of my head questioned the splash. This wasn’t sealed, after all, and the inability to cast spells on tempo could lead to a sudden defeat.

Overall, though, I knew my power level was competitive, as I had some sweet rares and interesting synergies. For example, putting a [card]Spectral Flight[/card] on a [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] is a cheap way of closing a game. The blue enchantment, underrated in general, is better than normal here. The consistent cheap win I’ve used to salvage some drafts is [card]Spectral Flight[/card] on a [card]Rotting Fensnake[/card] or, better yet, a [card]Markov Patrician[/card]. This deck has a few comparable interactions. Being able to turn a [card]Stromkirk Patrol[/card], [card]Slayer of the Wicked[/card], flipped [card unholy fiend]Cloistered Youth[/card] or [card]Civilized Scholar[/card] into a larger, hard to deal with flyer closes a game fast, and even a pumped [card]Selhoff Occultist[/card] is scary.

[card]Spectral Flight[/card] loses some value in sealed, where everyone has enough removal, but in draft, with quicker games, the card has a good chance of just getting there before the opponent can find an answer. Knowing when to bait and when to go for it is crucial to playing the card correctly. Getting two-for-oned by a Rebuke is often not that bad if it clears the way for a good follow up, like [card]Murder of Crows[/card] or [card]Skaab Goliath[/card], which are worth a few cards on their own.

I figured I had a 2-1 or 3-0 deck on my hands, but I wasn’t certain until I’d 6-0’d my pod.

We chopped the top eight of the draft open. I wouldn’t have normally, but I had half a mind to scoop to Drew Levin, a friend, first round opponent, and fellow grinder who only needed eleven points to level eight. This meant that I approached the tournament similar to an 8-4, even rare drafting a [card]Stromkirk Noble[/card] pack two, pick one.

This is the masterpiece I drafted:

[deck]1 Snapcaster Mage
2 Delver of Secrets
1 Civilized Scholar
2 Fiend Hunter
1 Deranged Assistant
1 Tribute to Hunger
1 Think Twice
1 Rebuke
2 Feeling of Dread
1 Hysterical Blindness
1 Sensory Deprivation
1 Lost in the Mist
6 Ghoulcaller’s Bell
2 Curse of the Bloody Tome
1 Traveler’s Amulet
1 Nephalia Drownyard
1 Swamp
8 Island
5 Plains
1 Isolated Chapel[/deck]

Sideboard included such notables as:
1 [card]Geistcatcher’s Rig[/card]
1 [card]Victim of Night[/card]
2 [card]Armored Skaab[/card]
1 [card]Trepanation Blade[/card]
1 [card]Night Terrors[/card]

“So, which side were you cut from?” -Matthew Hoey, IL State Champion
“This looks good! …oh.” -David Thomas, Overall Master

I thought the list was worth sharing, mostly because it took me longer than usual to build and there’s some tech in there. For example, I realized I could peek for [card]Delver of Secrets[/card], then “scry” the card away with a [card]Ghoulcaller’s Bell[/card]. The Bells were better in this deck than usual, with a pile of flashback cards and the [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] making good use of my graveyard. Also, I had the blue Curse and [card]Nephalia Drownyard[/card] to break mill parity.

Note how different this Esper list is from my first one. The curve is different, the threats are different, and the engines are different. These aspects are all draft-dependent, and uncontrollable for the most part. They do share a core of blue filtration and mixture of sweet removal spells, however, as well as a [card]Traveler’s Amulet[/card] and nonbasic fixer.

I usually don’t respect the mill deck, and have caught myself looting into an on board Drownyard before. Part of that lack of concern comes from the fact that, in the face of sufficient pressure, mill is often a turn or two too slow. The solution? Fog’m. [card]Hysterical Blindness[/card] is better than it looks, and fills a vital role as a Snapcasterable fog.

All of the sideboard cards were difficult cuts. I’ve never not played [card]Geistcatcher’s Rig[/card] before, I’ve seen [card]Trepanation Blade[/card] mill players out by itself before, and not running [card]Armored Skaab[/card] in a graveyard-based defensive deck is counter intuitive. That said, the Rig is above curve and doesn’t have synergy with the rest of the deck, the [card]Trepanation Blade[/card] doesn’t have enough creatures to carry it, and [card]Armored Skaab[/card]’s self-mill is dangerous in a deck with this many [card]Ghoulcaller’s Bell[/card]s.

The troll that I am, I made Drew sweat it out a bit and we played out our match. His UB control deck looked well constructed, but couldn’t race a Drownyard, and I had him dead on board after two games before scooping. My car gave me crap for not crushing, especially since my pile of Bells seemed to be performing well, but Drew has always split when I asked, and I know he would’ve done the same for me.

Random ISD Tech

[card]Inquisitor’s Flail[/card] works best with first strikers. [card]Abattoir Ghoul[/card], [card]Kessig Wolf[/card], and [card]Voiceless Spirit[/card] are the easiest ones to pick up.

[card]Altar’s Reap[/card] is insane against any type of removal, say in response to a [card]Rebuke[/card], and it’s a perfectly fine engine card for filling up the graveyard with creatures. That said, some decks don’t run enough creatures to support it. Even then, it’s a sideboard option against [card]Pacifism[/card] decks. Since the “removed” creature sits in play indefinitely, timing doesn’t matter so much, giving [card]Altar’s Reap[/card] inevitability. Due to the less restrictive mana cost, instant speed, and synergy with the rest of the set, [card]Altar’s Reap[/card] is in many respects better than [card]Sign in Blood[/card], but still goes as late or later.

Other writers have already mentioned this, but [card]Invisible Stalker[/card] and any form of pump is going to get the job done brutally fast.

Many of the junk cards in the set can be good in the right situations. [card]Disciple of Griselbrand[/card], for example, has unimpressive stats but is a great source of morbid for [card]Morkrut Banshee[/card] and [card]Skirsdag High Priest[/card], which can otherwise be difficult to turn on. [card]Stitcher’s Apprentice[/card] is another morbid engine, but has the benefit of being able to hold off a ground pounder indefinitely by blocking with a homunculus token and then sacrificing it to the next Stitcher’s trigger.

In most core sets there is a [card]Lava Axe[/card] deck that tries to fill up on a critical mass of burn. This deck is viable in ISD draft as well, and [card]Curse of the Pierced Heart[/card] and [card]Bump in the Night[/card] are both better than they look, especially in multiples. The best of these burn decks will feature one drops and other forms of reach like [card]Skirsdag Cultist[/card] and [card]Brimstone Volley[/card]. Remember that Bump in the Night can be held to prevent opposing werewolves from flipping and probably shouldn’t be dropped as a turn one play, however funny turn one lava spike, go might seem at the time.

[card]Hysterical Blindness[/card] is more than just a fog, and can swing otherwise unwinnable games by acting as a [card]Safe Passage[/card]-like one sided [card]Wrath of God[/card]. Keep your good eye peeled for matchups with lots of efficient creatures bashing into each other, and board Blindness accordingly.

I don’t care for [card]Curse of the Nightly Hunt[/card] in the maindeck, but my buddy Alex pointed out that it can be brought in to wreck decks full of [card]Fortress Crab[/card]s and [card]Armored Skaab[/card]s.

That’s all for this week. This is my first limited article, and while I don’t plan on doing many of them, input would be appreciated.


Caleb Durward
[email protected]


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