A couple weeks ago, I knew I wanted to go to the World Magic Cup Qualifier in Washington DC, but I hadn't been playing much Standard. The deck I'd come to like most, Human Reanimator, had pretty much fallen by the wayside.
Once more, Junk Reanimator was to blame. This was once a peaceful world, full of hope. Now, it's full of big, dumb animals that jump out of the nearest graveyard to kill you instantly. Additionally, Elephants from the local zoo have escaped on a murderous rampage.
Actually, it's similar to the plot of Mother (“Earthbound Zero”) for the NES. (By which I mean it's not so much a plot, as it is a bunch of surreal, yet dangerous stuff that happens.)
For one, the matchup against Junk is not great. They have more angles of attack, so there aren't many cards you can bring in that will be good in every situation. Additionally, the more cards you sideboard in, the more diluted your combo becomes. This is not a problem that affects the other Reanimator deck.
Worse, since Junk Reanimator has become Public Enemy Number One, everybody's sideboard is full of graveyard hate. It's not like they even expect to play against Human Reanimator, but the splash damage is no less effective. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, Angel of Glory's Rise.
After a few tournaments of running into the same wall, I decided to do something more productive with my time.
Then I got distracted and decided to play Esper Aggro.
Anthony Lowry posted this decklist to his Facebook wall after finding that it had placed second in a PTQ in Tokyo. This is most likely due to the man's love for Geist of Saint Traft, which is great enough to make most players feel uncomfortable, yet supportive.
Personally, I can't resist Standard decks that play cards that you'd expect to see in a draft. (Perhaps this is because I not-so-secretly wish I were drafting.) This one also reminded me of the Selesnya decks I played earlier in the season, with Sublime Archangel, Silverblade Paladin, and Faith's Shield. However, it seemed like this deck might have more ways to push through on a critical turn, including Unsummon, Spectral Flight, and Orzhov Charm. Additionally, this deck attempted to be resilient in a way that the GW Human deck never could, with several cards serving multiple roles. There was even an Undying Evil to defend against Supreme Verdict. I've always found Undying Evil to be somewhat underrated in Limited, and very satisfying to use to good effect.
With little recent Standard experience, I began testing the deck and tweaking it. As a starting point, I was not thrilled by the Dead Weights, but still willing to give them a try. There are so many x/3 creatures in this format that I was dubious of a sorcery-speed -2/-2 spell. Why not Crippling Blight, if that's our plan?
Then I returned to the real world, in which you don't play Naya Humans constantly, the Easter Bunny isn't real, and your rent is due in two days. Instantly and deeply jaded, I cut the enchantments for a pair of Snapcaster Mages and Nearheath Pilgrims. I felt that the deck had enough instants that it could benefit from a couple of Snapcaster Mages to reuse the best spell in your graveyard. As for the Nearheath Pilgrim, I wanted something to swing the race against hyperaggressive decks. I would have liked to play Gift of Orzhova, but in a deck with eight creatures with protection from black or white, it becomes a Gift of the Magi.
“Surprise! I got you some stained glass wings so you can fly around and gain life somehow!”
“Oh… that is really awkward. I see that your wings are white… I just invested in protection from white so that I couldn't be suddenly whisked away with Azorius Charm. I thought we talked about this. Remember that time? When I finally got back to the battlefield, I couldn't find my pants?”
After a couple more changes to the sideboard, I ran this list in the Washington DC WMCQ:
It did not go very well. I consistently drew one-land hands and had to mulligan repeatedly, which we all know a deck playing cards like Faith's Shield loves to do.
Actually, I think I confused the concepts of “love” and “certain death.” (As usual.)
My personal problems aside, I did the right thing and dropped to play in the side event with better EV and a 23rd land. I was not sure on the low land count of the PTQ decklist, but its game plan is similar to Delver's, in that it attempts to disrupt the opponent while a couple of creatures beat down aggressively. As such, I thought having too many lands might mean you flood out more often, which can mean the difference between casting Unsummon for the win and just shrugging and scooping up your hand of lands.
Next, former WMCQ champion Joe Pennachio suggested Vampire Nighthawks instead of Nearheath Pilgrims, since they fly over Thragtusks and are more of a threat on their own. Since I'd already been thinking about them, that was enough for me to make the switch. I'd found the Nearheath Pilgrims had bodies that were frail and useless, and the fact that they competed with Silverblade Paladin turned out to be pretty bad. After all, you want your biggest creature to be the one that's both double striking and carrying lifelink.
For the qualifying side event, I did significantly better. The deck was actually running, now that it had enough lands. It certainly needed at least 23 to be able to support Snapcaster Mages. I also didn't miss the Unsummon; it turned out to be relatively narrow and very bad against Lingering Souls, which were all over the place. Although it could sometimes save your creature from a sweeper, the tempo you'd lose from this play would often mean you were still doomed.
Eventually, I was about to draw out of prize contention, so my opponent asked if I would concede. I looked at the cards in his hand and the ones in my own, and I had to admit that I was dead in a few turns. Rather than see us both dead for money, I just gave him the win.
As I suggested, the deck is incredibly weak to Lingering Souls, which is at the frontlines of Standard right now. It was actually so bad that I wanted to run Skyblinder's Staff so my Knight of Glory or flying Geist of Saint Traft could get through against the Aristocrats' fliers with an extra point of damage. However, I ultimately decided that this decision would be “cray.” Three is a lot of mana to pay for an Equip cost, and the equipment is very situational.
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I'd decided that it was too narrow to be worthwhile, but the tokens are actually that bad of a problem. I'd similarly rejected Cower in Fear because the opponent usually plays out a Lingering Souls, then flashes it back on a subsequent turn. The obvious solution, Curse of Death's Hold, is just too expensive in most cases. The Esper Aggro deck doesn't usually get to five mana, and when it does, the game is usually lost. This is actually not the case against the Aristocrats, which stalls you out once it has a number of tokens and a Falkenrath Aristocrat. However, Junk Reanimator is too fast with its supporting rabid elephants. The spirits are actually the problem, because they prevent your creature from racing in the air with Spectral Flight. By the time you could get to five mana, you'd be losing to a Thragtusk.
I felt that the instant-speed removal spells were not good enough to warrant the sideboard slots, since the maindeck already contained Orzhov Charms and Unsummons. They were only really excellent or needed against Hellrider, due to its haste and triggers.
Finally, I tried Syncopate in the sideboard to cover the bases of Dispel and be a bit more flexible. However, it turned out to be very bad. This deck doesn't generate a lot of mana, and it tends to need to use it right now. If you're holding up mana instead of clearing a path, then you're not getting through. Against Junk and most Control decks, they're going to have more mana than you very soon, and the Syncopate is never going to do anything.
Here's the final decklist and sideboard that I would currently recommend:
As a warning, I haven't tested the Illness in the Ranks, so it could prove to be less effective than I hoped. Regardless, the real problem against a deck like Junk, Aristocrats or Esper tends to be the spirit tokens, so I believe it will work out reasonably. If these decks don't have tokens to slow you down, you can out-tempo them the way the deck is designed to.
A Caveat and Impressions from a Complete Block Draft
While Esper Aggro is unusual, quirky, and fun, I don't know if I would recommend it for a high-stakes tournament. For one, it's very easy to over-sideboard, or to sideboard incorrectly. Against a deck with Lingering Souls, you may wish to board out Unsummon, since it's not as effective in the (tormented) face of the Speed-Bump Ghosts™. However, you may find yourself in a situation where you're itching to draw Unsummon to get through, yet you know that you don't have any left in your deck. Hopefully, Illness in the Ranks will alleviate this situation for the most part. However, it still illustrates the importance of not over-sideboarding. You usually don't want to take out all copies of a single card, unless it's clearly bad in 95% of situations. Unfortunately, with a card like Unsummon, you don't know how many copies will be ideal until you see how the game unfolds. It's a risky proposition.
For now, I've begun to delve into complete Return to Ravnica block draft, and it's certainly a lot of fun, if not a bit tricky. I expected the packs to unfold the way original Ravnica did, forcing players into three overlapping guilds for the three packs. However, the presence of all of the guilds in Dragon's Maze means it really doesn't work out this way at all. There are plenty of reasonably powerful cards in single colors in Gatecrash and Return to Ravnica, so it doesn't seem unusual to play straight two colors, perhaps with just a small splash.
The reason for this profoundly different feel is surely due to two things: inferior fixing and superior creatures. Signets and bounce-lands are no more, so fixing mana takes a lot more time and effort now. You can't just splash a Simic bounce-land in a Rakdos deck for a pair of Simic bombs, like you could in Ravnica. Fixing requires a lot more time and effort.
The second prong is faster creatures; in Ravnica, we were regularly paying six mana for a 2/2, and we were delighted with that. Bounce-lands allowed us to do it, and we didn't have to worry too much about pressure. Gruul's “thing” was that it actually had creatures larger than a 2/3, while everyone else was overpaying for tiny bodies that had sweet, if unrelated, abilities. These days, if you're messing around with a splash, Selesnya's 3/3s for two will run you over.
These next few weeks are going to be exciting. I'm looking forward to learning more about the Limited format, as well as GP Portland and PT San Diego. Of course, I hope to meet some of you there as well!
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