Standard Esper… Without the Black

Standard PTQ season is in full swing and will last for a couple more months. I am grinding this PTQ season hard because I would LOVE to go to Dublin again. The last time I was in Dublin was exactly 10 years ago, in Summer 2003. At the time, Ireland was rated first in the world for overall quality of life. I distinctly remember two very nice Irish gentlemen buying several drinks for me and the German girl I was traveling with, just to be hospitable to foreigners. They then bought us tickets to a U2 cover band that put on what is, to this day, one of the three best concerts I have ever attended (the other two were The Cure and Pat Metheny). To top it all off, when I shared a cab with a different Irishman back to the airport, he refused to let me pay my share, stating that I was a guest in his country. I have traveled to hundreds of cities in dozens of countries around the world, and Dublin is right at the top of my list for destinations I rate highly. However, having lost Game 3 of Round 16 at Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze to miss Top 25, as well as a flight and invite to Dublin, this requires playing PTQ’s.

So I played a PTQ in Nashville on May 25th and was in 1st place after swiss with a 6-0-1 record. Unfortunately, I lost in the Top 8 to Patriot Control. The deck I played was Mono-Red, and the list was substantially similar to the list I Top 8’ed with on MODO a couple months ago. I discussed that list in a previous article and present it here:

I played this deck again because it was cheap and easy to play. Also, my wife and I had just finished moving (from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Nashville, Tennessee) so I did not have much time to prepare. The only change I made was to take out Brimstone Volley for Firefist Striker. The Striker had seemed to become commonplace in red decks, and a couple friends said it was good. Also, I remember having been unhappy with Brimstone Volley because of its relatively high mana cost. Striker was great and ensured that I always had a good 2-drop to follow up Burning Tree Emissaries.

The deck performed beautifully in the swiss rounds. It helped that I drew well and never had to mulligan. I always got there on 1-landers, and always drew either the 4th land for Hellrider on Turn 4, or drew Hellrider on Turn 4 when I had 4 lands. Basically, I got about as lucky as you can imagine, but that luck ran out in Top 8, where I drew 10 of my 20 land in the first 16 cards in Game 1, then watched my Patriot (UWR) Control opponent draw 4 Pillar of Flame and 2 Boros Reckoner in Game 2. I still think that Mono-Red is well positioned because it beats Reanimator. If I were to play it again, the list I would play is as follows:

Aside from changing Brimstone Volley to Firefist Striker, the only other change I would make is that I would replace Frostburn Weird with Thunderbolt in the sideboard. This is because one problem for this deck is that it runs into Restoration Angel. None of the deck’s burn spells kill Angel before it eats an attacker, and Firefist Striker doesn’t get by Angel the turn it enters play. Thunderbolt provides a neat solution to this problem and can always just go to the face for 3.

However, this season I have twice made Top 8 with Mono-Red, and twice had a quarterfinals exit to Patriot Control. This is an indication of what I knew deep inside all along, namely that Mono-Red is an inconsistent deck. It can beat any deck in the format, and it can win a PTQ, but the deck relies on drawing strong opening hands. If the deck floods out or gets stuck on one or two lands, you most likely lose. When Mono-Red draws well, it is very difficult to stop, but sometimes it just beats itself.

Thus, I decided to search for something better-suited to a long tournament. I wanted to find something with more stability, something that would let me play a skill-based game of Magic rather than simply slamming creatures into my opponent and hoping they can’t stop me. I also wanted something that could reliably beat Patriot Control. One possibility was to jump on the bandwagon and play some version of Reanimator. This did not appeal to me, however, because Reanimator is weak to red-based aggro, so I decided to search for something different.

About this same time, a friend started raving to me about his Esper deck. He said he had just won 5 straight 8-man queues with it online and was very excited about Terminus with planeswalkers. He sent me his list, but it hurt my eyes to read. The deck was very random, with several 1- and 2-off’s, including 1 Supreme Verdict to supplement his 4 Terminus. I could not make heads or tails of the deck, but I noticed that a very similar Esper deck had just made Top 16 of Grand Prix Guadalajara:

I built this deck and tested it out, but found myself getting run over by aggro. Part of the problem was that the deck plays 10 shock lands. Another part of the problem was that my Lingering Souls tokens occasionally got devastated by Thundermaw Hellkite. I really liked Nephalia Drownyard, however, and decided to try and streamline the deck. Coming straight out of a block Pro Tour, where Blue-White Control variants were the central pillar of the format, I wondered whether a more straight Azorius build would work. After all, Standard has the UW Control cards from Block, plus Augur of Bolas, Restoration Angel, and Snapcaster Mage. Surely some combination of these cards would be stable against aggro.

This may sound strange, but the idea struck me to remove all the black spells and just splash black for Nephalia Drownyard as a difficult-to-disrupt win condition. Nephalia Drownyard is similar to Maze’s End in Block, except it doesn’t require your lands to come into play tapped. Playing Drownyard means you can dedicate your entire deck to controlling your opponents. This means you can gain value through smart plays by reacting to them rather than trying to resolve threats such as Aetherling, which opens you up to counterattacks. I only had one day to test this idea before a PTQ near Atlanta on June 1, but it was doing well enough that I ran the list even though I knew it was not yet optimal. Here was the deck I registered:

The basic idea of this deck is to control your opponent’s threats until you can mill them out with Drownyard. Azorius Charm, Essence Scatter, and Supreme Verdict help keep you from dying to creatures. Detention Sphere and Dissipate are supposed to take care of other threats, such as planeswalkers. Sphinx’s Revelation and Think Twice give you card advantage to replace your 1-for-1 answers and help you pull ahead. Augur of Bolas and Restoration Angel do double-duty as defense and card advantage. Restoration Angel can also help with planeswalkers, and sometimes wins the game by attacking.

Since the deck doesn’t play any black spells, it does not need to play any black shocklands (i.e. Godless Shrine and Watery Grave). 8 Black sources is enough to play 3 Drownyard, and that is all you need from black. With this manabase, your only shocklands are 4 Hallowed Fountains. Aside from fixing your mana, a single Hallowed Fountain makes all your Drowned Catacombs, Glacial Fortresses and Isolated Chapels come into play untapped. Alternately, if you have an Island your Drowned Catacombs and Glacial Fortresses come into play untapped, while if you have a Plains your Glacial Fortresses and Isolated Chapels come into play untapped. If your opening hand has, for example, an Island, a Glacial Fortress, and an Isolated Chapel, you can play a tapped Isolated Chapel on Turn 1, Island on Turn 2, and Glacial Fortress on Turn 3. This means you have 2 mana (and all 3 colors) available on Turn 2, and 3 mana (and all 3 colors) available on Turn 3. The mana is very stable and causes little pain.

The sideboard is fairly self-explanatory. Rest in Peace comes in against graveyard decks such as Reanimator. Feeling of Dread and Terminus come in against aggro decks. Negate and the 4th Dissipate complete the counter-suite against control.

At the PTQ, I started 5-1 in an 8 round, 150+ person event. Round 7 was a win-and-in match because the winner would be able to draw into Top 8. Unfortunately, I lost this match against Bant Flash. Game 1 was very close, with me flooding hard as the game went on. Game 2 I got stuck on land and lost to an early Geist of Saint Traft. I won Round 8, however, and finished 11th, which was good for ½ box. My other loss was to Naya Midrange with Experiment One, Voice of Resurgence, Domri Rade, Predator Ooze, and Boros Charm. Basically, if you could build a deck to beat UW control, this opponent had done it. Over the course of the tournament I beat BRW Reanimator, Aristocrats, 2x Junk Tokens, Naya Blitz, and Selesnya Populate. For a deck that I had just built a day before, 11th was a satisfying finish.

After the PTQ, I did more testing online. This testing led to some important upgrades for the deck. The main concerns were that Essence Scatter was sometimes useless, such as when the opponent cast Unburial Rites, Advent of the Wurm, a planeswalker, or Lingering Souls. While mana-efficient, the card is just too narrow. Detention Sphere also had problems. While it was great at dealing with Voice of Resurgence or a resolved planeswalker, or at clearing out multiple copies of an aggressive threat, it struggled against Abrupt Decay and Acidic Slime. Once I Sphered my opponent’s 2x Geralf’s Messengers, only to take 4 when he had Decay. Needless to say, I lost that game. Sphere is also a very poor answer to Sire of Insanity, and it does not count as a target for Augur of Bolas. I was also unhappy with Feeling of Dread. While fine against Naya Blitz and Red-Based Aggro, it was terrible against any deck with Voice of Resurgence.

Looking through cards legal in standard, I found the following replacements: Renounce the Guilds, Syncopate, and Kraken Hatchling. Renounce the Guilds answers Sire of Insanity (as well as Assemble the Legion, Domri Rade, Falkenrath Aristocrat, and Obzedat), which can be problematic for UW. It also counts as an instant for Augur, and swapping Renounce for Sphere meant the deck was essentially immune to Abrupt Decay and Acidic Slime. Also, once Sphere is out, Renounce hits nothing in this deck. Syncopate can counter any type of spell and works well with Think Twice. Whatever mana you have left over after countering their spell can turn into card draw. Kraken Hatchling proved itself a better answer to aggro decks. The fact that you can play it on Turn 1 makes a large difference in tempo. It is hard for red-based aggro to beat Turn 1 Kraken Hatchling, Turn 2 Augur of Bolas. A friend also pointed out that the deck really doesn’t need 8 black sources for just 3 Drownyard, and having 4 Glacial Fortress, 4 Isolated Chapel, and 4 Drowned Catacomb leads to some slow, awkward draws filled with lands that come into play tapped. The solution is to cut 2 Isolated Chapel for 2 more Plains. Thus, after about a week of working on control, here is my current list:

I am very pleased with this deck. In fact, I 4-0’ed a Daily with it while writing this article, losing just 1 game in 4 rounds, and beating Junk Rites, Junk Tokens, BRW Rites, and RG Aggro along the way. I truly think this is deck is a contender. It has good matchups against much of the field, including Esper Superfriends, Junk Tokens, Patriot Control, BRW Reanimator and all aggro decks. Its hardest matchups are Junk Reanimator and Naya Midrange.

One interesting feature of this deck is that it takes full advantage of Augur of Bolas. This deck has 26 instants and sorceries. This means that the odds of hitting an instant or sorcery with Augur are around 1 – (35/60)(34/59)(33/58) = 81%! With such a high hit rate, Augur and Restoration Angel provide a powerful card-drawing engine. Moreover, every sideboard card is an instant or sorcery except for Kraken Hatchling and Rest in Peace, so these odds don’t change much when sideboarding, and even when the Hatchlings come in the odds remain 1 – (39/60)(38/59)(37/58) = 73%, which is perfectly acceptable.

The major problem with this deck is that it is extremely hard to play. It is a deck based on gaining incremental advantages, and this requires making smart decisions about when to use removal and countermagic. Decisions about what lands to play are very important, especially in the early turns. You really have to know how to play each matchup, and the control mirrors are especially tricky. Also, the deck takes forever to win with because your primary win condition is Drownyard. One Game 1 at the PTQ took a full ½ hour. Unless you can play this deck quickly and efficiently, sleeving it up for a PTQ might very well land you in the draw bracket. However, if you can master this deck it will bring you success. I, for one, have found my PTQ deck for this season.

  1. Yeah, you’re right dz. Some things got shuffled around and that paragraph needs a couple corrections. It has 25 instants and sorceries not 26, and out of the board it’s RiP and Kraken Hatchling. They never come in together though, so the reasoning applies to both.

  2. I actually stumbled upon your 4-0 list before reading this article.

    So I tested it, although switching the 4 Restoration Angels for 3 Snapcaster 1 Verdict (because I didn’t happen to have any on my account) and it’s performed extremely well. I can definitely see how Restoration Angel would be helpful in some situations, especially against opposing planeswalkers, but I’ve been pretty happy with the Snapcasters too.

    (the version that’s published has the Dissipates and Verdicts switched)

    But thanks for making the deck. It’s a blast to play!

  3. I 4-0′ed w/ different versions. Right now I would go with Verdicts and 4x Renounce the Guilds main (basically ceding game 1 to Junk Rites), and leave all the dissipates in the board against control, jund, and rites, but I tend to change these things daily. And yeah, one of the main function of Restos is to kill walkers, esp. Liliana or Garruks.

  4. I am trying out this deck and so far i like it. I am having troubles with sideoboarding. Could you please give suggestions on sideboarding plans against popular decks?

  5. Rest in Peace comes in against Rites and Junk Tokens. Some number of RIP also come in against Aristocrats, Zombies, and UW with Moorland Haunt, Runechanter’s Pike, and Snapcaster. I think it is 2-3 in those matchups because once it sticks they can’t kill it with Acidic Slime or Ray of Revelation.

    Kraken Hatchling comes in against fast aggro such as Mono-Red, Red/Green, and Zombies. It does not come in against Naya because Naya’s creatures are too big (Smiter) or fly over (Hellkite), and because Domri is too good at killing Hatchlings.

    Renounce the Guilds comes in against aggro and if they have a lot of multicolored cards: Naya, Junk Tokens, Red-based aggro, and Zombies (GB play Lotleth Troll and RB play Falkenrath Aristocrat). More renounces also sometimes come in against RUW control, depending on how many multicolored spells they play (e.g. Detention Sphere, Assemble the Legions, Aurelia).

    Dissipates come in against Rites, and the full counter suite comes in against control decks, including GB control and Jund.

    Oh, and I now think the deck should have 5 Island 5 plains.


  6. Trying this deck, maybe I’m wrong but I really think it needs the fourth revelation.
    For recovering card advantage, and also not dying to burn against RG decks.

  7. Thanks for the side boarding tips. The only change i did was
    +1 Snapcaster Mage
    -1 Renounce the Guilds
    +1 Renounce the Guilds
    -1 Dissipate

    I loved having 1 Snapcaster for the variety of roles it performs. I didn’t want more than one.

    The deck performance is very optimal. Only thing i want in the deck is a ‘Pillar of flame’ or ‘Consume the Meek’ effect. Not sure what card can substitute that.

    Hopefully M14 brings in new toys for control to play with.

  8. I am playing the standard Esper, with 12 Shocks (Watery, Hallowed and Godless). I didn’t find many problems with losing 2 when I really need a land up. I also play with 24 lands, wich the configuration I list bellow:

    4x Watery Grave
    4x Hallowed Fountain
    4x Godless Shrine
    4x Drowned Catacomb
    4x Glacial Fortress
    2x Isolated Chapel
    1x Plains
    1x Island

    I really liked using the Nephalia Drownyard as win condition (if my creatures can’t do this). Want to replace my 1x Plains and 1x Island for 2x Nephalia, but I am afraid, cause I play with 24 lands (and also 2x Chromatic Lantern) and I guess this change could damage my mana base. Can you give me a help to solve this problem?

  9. @Draque

    We can ascertain whether your current manabase is adequate or not only by providing the complete list.
    The standard decks for Esper AFAIK use minimum 26 lands including 3 Nephalia drownyard.


    Though i am sure of the sideboard cards to be brought in certain matchups, I am not sure of the cards to be taken out.Below are my approximate sideboarding that i do in matchups. Could you please let me know what i am doing wrong? I am using 2 Dissipates and 2 Renounce the Guilds main.

    Control (Versions without Multi colored permanents)
    +2 Dissipate +3 Negate -4 Terminus -1 Renounce the Guilds

    Jund,Control (Versions with some Multi colored permanents)
    +2 Dissipate +3 Negate +1 Renounce the Guilds -4 Terminus -2 Azorius Charm

    Aggro (R/G Aggro) [On the draw]
    +2 Renounce the Guilds +4 Kraken Hatchling -4 Syncopate -2 Dissipate

    Aggro (R/G Aggro) [On the play]
    +2 Renounce the Guilds +4 Kraken Hatchling -2 Think Twice -2 Syncopate -2 Dissipate

    Junk Rites
    +2 Dissipate +4 Rest in Peace -4 Azorius Charm -2 Terminus

    +2 Renounce the Guilds -2 Dissipate

    +2 Rest in Peace +2 Renounce the Guilds -2 Dissipate -1 Think Twice -1 Syncopate

    UW Flash
    +2 Rest in Peace -2 Renounce the Guilds

  10. I’m not sure there is a correct sideboard strategy for each archetype because lists differ. Your thoughts seem reasonable. The only things I would change are 1) against a lot of aggro I remove Think Twice and leave in Syncopate. It catches Hellrider and late Burn spells if your life total is low. 2) You probably want to bring in more counterspells against UW Flash. 3) You want to leave in all Terminus against Junk Rites. Hope that helps!

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