So coming back from last week, I see that of the 13 cards (Plus a late-edited in [card]Unravel the Aether[/card] after both Sam Pardee and Michael Jacob pointed out that I overlooked it) I listed, 12 of those cards saw play in the most recent SCG Open and the Super Series held at WOTC headquarters this past weekend. Throw in the lands and a few odder choices such as [card]Oracle of Bones[/card] and we’ve seen about 20 cards make an impact from the new set. I point this out not to toot my own horn, but rather that people should really stop hating on new sets.

I get it, I really do. Every new set is the worst one since the last and nothing in there is interesting except for two or three mythics R&D snuck in because they have to sell this set somehow. When you look at every new set through that lens, small sets will come up short pretty much every time. You need to look for those role-players that’ll marginally upgrade decks and the key cards that may require work to get off the ground. They may not all pay off, but typically there’s always one or two that spring up a new base deck.

In this case, [card]Ephara, God of the Polis[/card] is our first winner, making a number of new white, creature-based shells.

I want to start with the base WU builds and go from there. First this is my updated list from last week’s article, after I got about 30 games in I had a much better idea of where it excelled and what I wanted to focus on.

[deck]Main Deck
4 Soldier of the Pantheon
2 Deputy of Acquittals
2 Imposing Sovereign
4 Precinct Captain
4 Lyev Skyknight
3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
2 Banisher Priest
3 Ephara, God of the Polis
1 Heliod, God of the Sun
2 Archangel of Thune
4 Detention Sphere
3 Spear of Heliod
2 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
3 Mutavault
4 Temple of Enlightenment
2 Azorius Guildgate
4 Hallowed Fountain
3 Island
8 Plains
Sideboard:
3 Last Breath
2 Revoke Existence
2 Banisher Priest
2 Archangel of Thune
4 Gainsay
2 Domestication[/deck]

This version is far more focused on being aggressive and having a handful of late-game threats than being so midrange oriented. [ccProd]Nykthos[/ccProd] takes a backseat to [card]Mutavault[/card] again and with three Spears I’m pretty happy how the switch has played out so far. While [card]Deputy of Acquittals[/card] is probably the worst card in the deck, that just means we have a robust power level to begin with. At worst it’s just a tricksy [card]Grizzly Bear[/card] and at best it means another two or three cards drawn off Ephara or fizzling out a [card]Bile Blight[/card] or [card]Hero’s Downfall[/card].

[draft]Brimaz, King of Oreskos[/draft]

Actually my biggest remaining concern with the main deck is the count on [card]Brimaz, King of Oreskos[/card] which continues to annoy me. After about ten games I felt like going up to four was reasonable. The king was being dethroned often enough that having an heir in the wings was typically a good idea. What changed my mind soon after was in racing against all the non-control strategies. This was a far more frustrating experience when drawing multiples of Brimaz. Against MBC, having the maximum amount is a great idea since [card]Thoughtseize[/card] makes redundancy very important for this type of strategy. Against other decks where you need to be constantly present threats and interact, multiples spelled doom if I couldn’t start a draw chain off Ephara.

So where does that leave me? I like three in the main deck, and I’m considering a fourth in the sideboard to come in against UW and MBC decks. Against other devotion plans I’d much rather have extra copies of [card]Banisher Priest[/card], and none of your 3-drops are particularly amazing against red decks. Unless you want to go back to [card]Fiendslayer Paladin[/card] which is only good against that one archetype.

My other primary concern is whether the extra end-game potential in [card]Elspeth, Sun’s Champion[/card] and [card]Archangel of Thune[/card] is worth foregoing either additional maindeck removal or more aggressive creatures. Owen posted his own build on Monday and that jammed a full dozen creatures at the two slot. While I think that may be on the high side, I’ll definitely try that configuration out and I especially like it if the metagame is MBC, UW Control, GR Monsters, Mono-U Devotion, and Bant decks. Ephara and Heliod may be the most important single weapons, but as long as you can draw some cards, forcing them to spend removal early is huge. [card]Banisher Priest[/card] does so much work against GR and Mono-U simply because they lack the removal to consistently deal with it.

Speaking of removal, I completely agree with Owen that [card]Detention Sphere[/card] may see significantly more play with the printing of [card]Temple of Enlightenment[/card]. Brimaz and Ephara were why I started considering a UW shell, but Detention Sphere definitely sold me on it. It answers nearly every key card at a reasonable price, and at the PTQ level punishes players for being greedy and extending into it. Hands involving multiple [card]Frostburn Weird[/card], [card]Nightveil Specter[/card], and other assorted X/3s and above were some of the tougher hands for white aggro to fight through. [card]Detention Sphere[/card] makes these hands into complete disasters for opponents, not only netting the 2-for-1, but leaving them wide open while they take at least two turns to recover mana and tempo-wise.

[card]Heliod, God of the Sun[/card] may be the most underrated card in the deck as it rarely ever had enough impact pre-BNG. In this iteration you can consistently turn it on and the tokens actually accomplish something since you have room for Spear and Ephara to help out. My first build of the deck actually had four Ephara and two Heliod and I think that may be correct against UW Control as they really are the best weapons you have against them if they don’t have an active Elspeth or [card]Aetherling[/card] on the board.

Of course there are other options available to us if you feel UW is too constricting. Makihito Mihara came in 2nd at the Magic Super Series this weekend in part due to a sweet Standard deck:

[deck]Main Deck
4 Soldier of the Pantheon
4 Precinct Captain
2 Imposing Sovereign
4 Lyev Skyknight
3 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
3 Ephara, God of the Polis
1 Heliod, God of the Sun
3 Obzedat, Ghost Council
2 Ultimate Price
2 Far Away
4 Detention Sphere
2 Spear of Heliod
1 Whip of Erebos
4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
3 Watery Grave
4 Temple of Enlightenment
4 Temple of SIlence
2 Mutavault
3 Plains
1 Swamp
Sideboard:
2 Dark Betrayal
3 Thoughtseize
3 Doom Blade
3 Glare of Heresy
1 Supreme Verdict
2 Blood Baron of Vizkopa
1 Notion Thief[/deck]

It most reminds me of the Esper Humans list that came in 2nd at GP Shizuoka. Instead of dealing in a more aggressive Human theme or playing heavy-hitters like [card]Desecration Demon[/card], it removes Demons and Necromancers for Ephara and Brimaz. It retains an impressive end-game threat with [card]Obzedat, Ghost Council[/card] and [card]Whip of Erebos[/card] while still punishing slower starts with Captain and Brimaz. This is actually one of the most exciting shells I’ve seen for the deck and I may battle with it at a PTQ this weekend in (mostly) the dark.

Really, the only two things that bother me about the deck are the consistency with which it hits BB and the removal suite. While I normally take these kind of numbers at face value and try them before testing, I feel like the only sure number was quad D-Spheres. Otherwise we get a weird mish-mash of maindeck spot removal and a single [card]Supreme Verdict[/card] in the board alongside five normal removal spells and potentially eight with [card]Glare of Heresy[/card]. I feel like if the deck wants to Verdict, and post-board it very well could, then it should commit to that a little more. Removing a [card]Doom Blade[/card] or Glare, let alone the [card]Notion Thief[/card] isn’t the end of the world, and even running only two or three Verdict would make at least a real thing you can lean on.

As for the main deck, while I like [card]Ultimate Price[/card] fine, [card]Far // Away[/card] feels very expensive for what it wants to be doing. While I’m not sold on maindeck [card]Doom Blade[/card] being the answer, I wouldn’t hate [card]Orzhov Charm[/card], [card]Last Breath[/card], or even a 1/1 Verdict/[card]Far // Away[/card] split if we want situational blowouts. Heck, if we’re sure we can hit BB on a consistent basis then [card]Bile Blight[/card] remains an option. I feel like even with a semi-aggressive curve, [card]Last Breath[/card] is likely what I’d want since I know exactly what I’m getting out of it. [card]Banisher Priest[/card] is also another options and one worth looking closer at if GR Monsters is a legitimate concern.

What strikes me is not just the synergy that Ephara and Obzedat have together, but it’s that reminder that this shell doesn’t need to be straight aggro. You can have an aggressive curve and still play like a midrange deck, because odds are good you’ll see your midrange cards at some point. In fact, if you wanted to go deeper, you could even move it toward the other best plan in Standard and combine the two.

[deck]4 Pack Rat
4 Precinct Captain
2 Imposing Sovereign
4 Brimaz, King of Oreskos
1 Sin Collector
4 Nightveil Specter
3 Ephara, God of the Polis
3 Obzedat, Ghost Council
4 Detention Sphere
2 Supreme Verdict
2 Last Breath
2 Whip of Erebos
3 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Watery Grave
4 Temple of Enlightenment
1 Temple of Deceit
4 Temple of SIlence
2 Mutavault
2 Plains
1 Swamp[/deck]

This deck has probably gone way too deep. However it brings up one important point that I think may have an impact on how I progress with this deck. How good is Ephara over sticking with [card]Underworld Connections[/card] for a draw engine? Let’s think for a moment. [card]Underworld Connections[/card] is incremental card draw that cares about two things:

1) Having enough life to draw cards
2) Tapping a land to do so

So while it feels horrible get ground out by Underworld Connections, it takes a while to get going and costs a lot of life and mana. It feels worse than it really is when you look at it from an overall investment perspective. Ephara is similar to this, she’s incremental card advantage that cares about one thing.

1) You keep playing and creating creatures

In that sense Ephara has a higher cost, both mana-wise and what you need to put into the card to make it function. However in all these decks playing creatures is what you want to do anyway, the only concession being made is that we keep a higher creature count than what we may otherwise want. The mana investment is null as long as we’re effectively using the creatures. If we can’t make good use of them, then we’re playing a very expensive [card]Divination[/card]/[card]Concentrate[/card] since we’ll rarely attack with her.

This is why I like Ephara in the current format though, doing aggressive things and making full use of your mana while drawing cards has already been proven to work. Key difference is that while you still only get incremental advantage and you get a threat in matches where you stalemate. [card]Bident of Thassa[/card] only does one thing and assumes you have a reasonable board position. Ephara only cares that you continue to make a board position and is still a 6/5, which at least can act as a threat even if it never gets to attack. The specter of her looms over the battlefield just like Thassa does in Mono U matches.

So with [card]Pack Rat[/card] the main knock on using it with Ephara is that Pack Rat tends to work on its own and haumphs cards. If you don’t have an Ephara and your Pack Rat is dealt with after making two or three other Rats, you could be in too large of a hole to climb out of. Underworld Connections doesn’t care about this and will diligently attempt to draw you back into the game, regardless of how depleted your hand is. The other obvious issue is that while your mana can cover both, staying mono-colored just increases the consistency you can do… Anything, honestly.

One other thing I want to talk about is how good is [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] is right now. I get that the answer to this question is still likely “very”—but let’s pause and [card]Ponder[/card] this for a moment. [card]Nightveil Specter[/card] is at its best against decks that either can’t battle past a 2/3 with ease (Blocking is good!) or don’t pressure enough that a Specter can hit multiple times to essentially [card]Ophidian[/card] and win you the game. Against MBC this is a reasonable thing to try for and the same in the Mono U Devotion mirror. Against GR Monsters, your opponent will most likely laugh at you and then crush you. Burn doesn’t care for obvious reasons and UW Control does case, but also happens to now have at least 12ish ways to take care of it game one.

This leaves Nightveil in an odd space where it’s still the best three-drop in the format against two or three decks due to its special properties of providing card advantage and being difficult to kill. Meanwhile against the rest of the format Brimaz does all the heavy lifting by threatening the opponent directly or at least trading with a substantial threat on the table. What interests me here is that we can effectively run both if we really wanted too! It wouldn’t even be that difficult to do while having a mana base that’s borderline playable.

Look at the Mihara list and swap a few numbers and suddenly you have a mana base that has 21 sources that cast Nightveil and 17 for Brimaz on turn three. This is while still running a pair of Mutavault and without running a full dozen of either shocks or scry lands. Which is why I bring the question up of how well they work together and if it could be worthwhile to try out. Maybe though I’m focused on the wrong way to go about it though, since Esper gives such a wide variety of answers against various decks. What about UW Devotion?

[deck]4 Frostburn Weird
4 Tidebinder Mage
4 Nightveil Specter
3 Lyev Skyknight
4 Thassa, God of the Sea
3 Ephara, God of the Polis
4 Master of Waves
4 Detention Sphere
2 Jace, Architect of Thought
2 Last Breath
1 Rapid Hybridization
4 Temple of Enlightenment
4 Temple of Deceit
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Mutavault
11 Island[/deck]

Seriously, I could go on and on about how much I like Ephara or that other colors are viable—such as the Bant list that Ryan Hipp battled with. At this point though it’s mostly going to come off as rambling though, so I’ll end it here. This weekend I’ll likely be playing Esper Ephara or UW Control with at least three Revoke Existence to help me out against the various Gods. Next week I’ll be back with some testing results and a short tournament report if I do end up slamming Epharas on the table. Part of this will also be dependent if I can borrow Brimaz or end up dropping 120 bucks for cards not named [card]Mutavault[/card]. Frowntown.

Josh Silvestri
Email me at: josh.silvestri@gmail.com