Eternal Warrior #15: Under the Blade

Previously, in Eternal Warrior #13, we took our first look at True-Name Nemesis in Legacy. That article covered recent UWR Delver and Bant Stoneblade decks, putting the “mini-Progenitus” to good use. But in the realm of Stoneforge Mystic decks, both of those configurations are mere usurpers to the throne. The original king of the Stoneblade archetype was, and remains, Esper.

Esper Stoneblade has always been popular with the top players on the $5K circuits. Many of those players enjoyed their best run during the reign of CawBlade in Standard, and Esper Stoneblade is a natural fit for their play style. Though the deck has been around for a couple years, it hasn’t remained stagnant. The emergence of TNN has forced some changes on the archetype. Lingering Souls had somewhat fallen out of favor in recent months, and the presence of TNN has accelerated that transition, infusing the metagame with numerous copies of Golgari Charm, Zealous Persecution, Massacre, and a litany of similar sweepers. Opposing TNN’s laugh in the face of Lingering Souls, charging past them to wreck your planeswalkers. It’s just not a good time to be a Spirit token.

At this point, Esper pilots have split into two groups, following distinct paths. The first path is a more traditional Stoneblade deck. It has heavy control elements, but also the ability to put on early pressure against combo when necessary. For the match footage today, we’ll be using one such deck:

James piloted this list to a Top 4 finish in the StarCityGames Legacy Open in Columbus two weeks ago. There were a few other available variations on these “pure” Stoneblade lists, including some that ran two or more copies of Liliana of the Veil, but this one looked among the most controlling, and a good list to test out to get a feel of the deck.

You can check out the match play footage below. The second round match against The Epic Storm is especially interesting, with a lot of interaction in the first two games, until my opponent has his god-hand in Game 3 and just curb-stomps me. Also featured are Affinity, Mono-Black, and UWR Delver.

Testing with the deck showed a few weaknesses, some of which are highlighted in the match footage. For a deck that wants a lot of lands in play, it is surprisingly vulnerable to Wasteland. In Game 1, when you don’t know if your opponent is a Wasteland deck or not, you often want to fetch basic Swamp for Thoughtseize. This is especially true for any hand without either Spell Pierce or both a Brainstorm and a Force of Will. But this decision ripples through all your subsequent turns, making your mana either awkward or vulnerable on Turns 2 and 3. The singleton Counterspell is clearly meant to be found later in the game when it is still relevant, but if it lands in your opener, it will sit there and taunt you with its double-blue casting cost, tempting you into making bad mana decisions.

If you were experimenting with this deck yourself, you may want to try additional cantrips to help hit those land drops. I would also suggest trying either Zealous Persecution or Massacre in the sideboard. Those Supreme Verdicts may be uncounterable, but they are also nearly uncastable against aggro decks with a solid mana-denial plan, which are… well, pretty much all of them.

I guess I don’t really see the allure of playing a Stoneblade deck that is so far to the “control” side of the pendulum. The opportunity cost of playing Esper Stoneblade is that you could just be playing UW Miracles instead. You’d lose the aggressive lines against combo, but in their place you’d gain Counterbalance against them, and you’d also have Sensei’s Divining Top to help hit those critical land drops.

With so many of my frustrations with this deck coming down to mana, the “Deathblade” variants start to look like an Oasis in the Desert. These Esper decks pack a playset of Deathrite Shaman, greatly improving the mana, helping against Daze and Spell Pierce, and accelerating out early TNNs. The Bant decks we looked at last month did much of the same thing via Noble Hierarch. DRS may not increase the power of your TNN, but it does everything else Hierarch does and more. You can cast it off that inconvenient basic Swamp you keep having to fetch, for one thing.

The “Deathblade” variant has been played for several months, pre-dating the printing of TNN, but becomes a more attractive option with TNN in the format. Like Bant, you can be the deck that lands your TNN first.

To highlight the possibilities of Deathblade, I selected two decklists from recent StarCityGames Legacy Opens. The two lists are by the same well-known $5K grinder, and show an interesting progression in card selection.

The first list is trying to maximize True-Name Nemesis, but seemingly has few advantages compared to a Bant deck doing the same thing. Sure, it plays Thoughtseize where a Bant list would likely play additional countermagic, but that’s the most significant difference. Bant could and does play DRS. To like the first list over a Bant TNN deck, you have to love the Thoughtseizes and sideboard Zealous Persecutions enough to overcome the deck packing far less of a punch.

The second list, on the other hand, goes an entirely different direction. Force of Will has been moved to the sideboard, with Dark Confidant taking its place in the maindeck. This list appears to have been built to match up well against attrition decks, games in which Bob is a homerun and casting Force is like grounding into a double-play. Game 1 against combo is all but conceded, unless DRS manages to meddle with their gameplan. The sideboard contains eleven cards that could come in against combo. This deck is like playing a blue-painted version of Junk that can morph into a “real” blue deck with a transformational sideboard. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to take this to a big paper tournament, but it may be well-positioned online right now.

Before I go, I want to comment briefly on yesterday’s B&R announcement. There had been some talk of TNN being banned, which I never believed to be a real possibility — though that would have made the timing of this article pretty awkward! Thankfully, Legacy was indeed left untouched. Having explored the different decks that wield TNN, I believe in the card’s power, but don’t think it was ever in danger of the ban-hammer. Like Tarmogoyf, the card is “just” used as a body on the board. It’s a very good one, but that’s all it is, and 3 mana is still quite a lot in Legacy. If you want your deck to win with a 3-mana creature, you need to make some deliberate design decisions to facilitate that plan. TNN may continue to influence the design of decks that need to interact with it, but it didn’t break the game, and I think it’s poised to settle into the diverse Legacy metagame quite nicely.

You can find me on Twitter @cjwynes.