This past weekend I had the privilege and pleasure to play in the first-ever MTG Arena Mythic Championship. The setup, the people, and the atmosphere was truly incredible and I feel blessed to have had this opportunity.

Once again, this year my slump continued as I bombed out of the event. I took some time to analyze my games and preparation in my head, and while I think I could have played maybe a little more with my deck after it was submitted to stay sharp, I was fairly happy with how I played my first three rounds while in contention, and admittedly my heart wasn’t really in it in the last match and maybe was just casting cards or whatever as I knew I was already eliminated from contention and was in one of my favorite cities in the world with a lot of my favorite people.

I can attribute my losses to my opponents playing well and perhaps capitalizing on my draws not panning out. It happens. That’s Magic, and I’m okay with it. People often ask me how I bounce back after rough tournaments and it’s a hard question to answer because I don’t feel like I need to “bounce back.” I get so much love from people telling me I’m great and that “I’ll get em next time.” While I always love the support, I’m never really that beat up after losses.

At this point of my career I’ve gotten used to the fact that sometimes you just don’t win, and the best you can do is simply play well and win those really close and awesome games we all love to play. If I throw one away, maybe I’ll be a little annoyed for a bit, but other than that I’m always happy to just cheer for my friends and watch them succeed or commiserate with those who have fallen with me. One thing I learned a long time ago in life was that I’d rather be happy than sad, and I’m in complete control of that if I want to be. Life will provide us with plenty of opportunities, sometimes those opportunities won’t work out perfectly and that’s okay.

Anyways, back to the tournament.

Taking Esper Control to Mythic Championship III

What I’d really like to talk about today is how I arrived at my deck choice of Esper Control. I started the season playing an Esper Control as I believed it played the best cards in the format. I believe I was right about that, but wildly wrong on how to approach deckbuilding.

There’s a lot more Teferi, Time Raveler and more Oath of Kaya than there was initially. Teferi’s popularity has very much turned the format into a tap-out format, so Absorb and other counters have found their way out of the maindecks for now, though we did play a single copy of Dovin’s Veto to not be completely cold to Command the Dreadhorde since we’re not great at pressuring life totals. With Narset and Search for Azcanta, the deck is optimized to play some high impact one-ofs since you can dig through your deck quite quickly to find them.

Here’s the list I and almost all of my testing partners played at the Pro Tour.

Esper Control

4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Isolated Chapel
4 Watery Grave
1 Plains (331)
1 Swamp (339)
2 Basilica Bell-Haunt
2 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin
4 Thought Erasure
3 Kaya's Wrath
3 Narset, Parter of Veils
2 Command the Dreadhorde
1 The Elderspell
3 Oath of Kaya
4 Teferi, Time Raveler
3 Cast Down
4 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
1 Despark
1 Dovin's Veto
1 Cry of the Carnarium

Sideboard
4 Drowned Catacomb
4 Glacial Fortress
4 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Isolated Chapel
4 Watery Grave
1 Plains (331)
1 Swamp (339)
2 Basilica Bell-Haunt
2 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin
4 Thought Erasure

If you want to read a little more about the deck and sideboard plans, check out Paulo’s article.

The only thing a bit different than other versions of the deck is Nightveil Predator. I first saw it in Jonathan Rossum’s deck at an SCG event. I didn’t think much of it until I played an Esper mirror and got absolutely owned by it. Nightveil Predator can completely run away with unwinnable games if the opponent isn’t prepared for it, and since decklist submission was only a couple of days after the Invitational, we tested it a bit and determined it was good enough to include in the sideboard whether opponents were ready for it or not.

Nightveil Predator

I loved the card specifically out of control decks because it made sideboarding hard even with known deck lists. How many Kaya’s Wrath are you going to leave in? None? Then Nightveil Predator could win the most unwinnable games as it pressures an opponent’s life total before and after a Command the Dreadhorde. Out of a Hero deck, Esper players can safely bring in Kaya’s Wrath and it will do double duty, resetting a game where Hero has snowballed out of control while also picking off the hexproof threat.

Outside of the Predator, the list is fairly stock.

I didn’t start prepping for this tournament wanting to play Esper, though. I started with Mono-Red, which had served me well in the weekly MPL matches, and it seemed that the deck was good even when people were prepared for it. You had to load up on ways to interact with Experimental Frenzy while also not leaving yourself vulnerable to the speed of the deck. It’s a delicate balance to strike, but the new Esper lists that won the SCG Invitational and the Standard Grand Prix seemed to nail that balance and the matchup felt quite bad from the Red side. Knowing full well Esper would be the most popular deck, playing Red felt like a foolish choice, no matter how much I liked it.

The next deck that had been winning a good amount was Izzet Phoenix. In fact, if I just played with the deck I was winning the most with, I’d easily have played Phoenix. I almost never lost with it. The problem with Phoenix, and the problem Phoenix has often had, is that it doesn’t adjust very well.

A lot of Esper decks were moving away from cards like Cry of the Carnarium and were playing a lot of Tyrant’s Scorn. But I knew players at the MC wouldn’t just ignore Phoenix. So how would Esper players adjust? My adjustments–and one of the main reasons I preferred control over Hero–was that Cast Down was great in the current format with a lot of Gruul and Phoenix. Tyrant’s Scorn would also be left dead staring down a Nullhide Ferox or Crackling Drake.

If Esper was playing more Cast Down, more Cry and maybe even worse, more Narset, Parter of Veils, how could I personally combat that as a Phoenix player? The one thing I could think of was to move away from Legion Warboss as it lines up poorly against that removal suite, and move back towards Saheeli, Sublime Artificer. This will leave you a permanent in play after a sweeper and doesn’t get removed by Cast Down. But it simply wasn’t enough

Some people on my testing team, including Grzegorz Kowalski who ended up playing Phoenix, liked Bant Ramp. I however, felt pretty comfortable from the Esper side of that matchup, doubted it had a good Red matchup, and didn’t even think it was particularly good against Phoenix in my limited experience. I honestly didn’t see a reason to test it based on my experience playing against it, despite its results being impressive. No one on my team, including Greg, really loved it either.

In the end, after testing and discussion, it was clear to me we should play Esper. Even Greg was on board through most of the conversation, but in the end he chose the deck he had the most experience with.

Hero or Wrath?

Hero of Precinct OneKaya's Wrath

With an uptick in Gruul and Bant’s popularity, we liked the Wraths better. The biggest draw to our version of the deck to me personally was Search for Azcanta. Search is one of the best cards in Standard and is underplayed right now.

This format is very swingy with cards like Command the Dreadhorde and the Elderspell. The ceiling of these cards is impossibly high, but the floor is dying with uncastable spells in your hand. Other games, I simply can’t lose when I draw one of these two cards. Search for Azcanta ties this together nicely by giving you additional access to these cards when you want to close the game out, while also finding you action while they rot in your hand. On top of that, it even gives you an extra mana to cast Dreadhorde, which probably the most important card in the mirror. We briefly discussed playing something with a positive win percentage against Esper like Simic Nexus or Sultai Dreadhorde, but determined those decks still played close with Esper and had much worse matchups outside of Esper, so unless we thought Esper would be over 50% it wouldn’t be the best choice.

All in all, the experience was incredible. I thought the structure was much better than the invitational, allowing more wiggle room for players to continue playing. I don’t particularly like the bye system despite being a beneficiary as I am in the MPL and could potentially earn the byes. I feel that it puts players way too deep into a very prestigious tournament that’s also top-heavy with Mythic Points. I hope in the future the MPL splits can have different awards and leave the MCs without byes involved.

Lastly, I’d also like to congratulate Matias Leveratto on a tremendous performance and victory at the event. I was honestly inspired watching him play every time I watched him. His demeanor was calm, he played incredibly well, and really put on a clinic on how to play Simic Nexus. I watch and play a lot of Magic and have some experience with that deck, and he certainly made plays I wouldn’t have on several occasions which were in fact much better lines than I had. I’m excited to see more from Matias, and I highly recommend keeping an eye on him going forward.

One more tournament, one more failure to convert. I’ll get em’ next time!