The Beautiful World of Esper Devotion

Feature Article from Jackie Lee
Jackie Lee
12/13/2013 10:01:00 AM
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Devotion has been a boon to Standard, spicing up monocolored strategies and helping them stay fresher for longer. However, even the freshest grape in the bunch will eventually be spoiled. But, to keep the analogy accurate, we'll be sick of them before that happens. If vegetables did a better job capturing my attention from the crisper drawer, maybe I wouldn't let them degenerate into a yellowed liquid so often.

Then again, this sounds like garbage-blaming.

Anyway...

When it comes down to it, monocolor is still just that. The thrill of playing Nightveil Specter will only last so long, and when two monocolored decks are each playing a set, it may begin to feel like the new Delver.

Wait: Nightveil Specter is the new Delver?

Er, maybe I should just start over.

A triple hybrid mana casting cost is interesting, in that it allows a “colored-feeling” card to be played in multiple different decks, but not in so many that we have a Dismember on our hands. That tends to lend to a format being perceived as homogenous.

Regardless, the innate desire of devotion cards to play more of the same can get a little bland. That's why my interest was piqued by a deck Roberto Gonzales was testing on Thursday night before Grand Prix Albuquerque.

I'd just finished playing a series of Monoblue mirrors when I turned my glassy, deadened stare upon the deck Roberto Gonzales was testing.

Esper Devotion. It was a list he'd gotten from a friend, Jonathon Job. It was an interesting concept, but watching him play Frostburn Weird into Melissa DeTora's Elspeths and AEtherlings wasn't the most persuasive thing I could have seen.

That Friday, I played some games with Monoblue and with Esper, and while as I was happier with the latter, I wasn't super thrilled with either. I decided to give Esper Devotion a shot, since it sounded fun, and I felt that the favorable matchups against Monoblue, Monoblack, and RG would be more important than an unfavorable matchup against Control. The Monoblue mirror revolves around a handful of cards and the die roll, and after its recent popularity on Magic Online, I expected to see a considerable amount of the deck. Playing a version that could cast Supreme Verdict and Sphinx's Revelation instead of Cloudfin Raptor seemed much more appealing.

Roberto passed this list onto me for GP Albuquerque:

Esper Devotion by Roberto Gonzales
Main Deck
Sideboard
1 AEtherling
4 Frostburn Weird
3 Master of Waves
4 Nightveil Specter
3 Thassa, God of the Sea
Creatures [15]
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
Planeswalkers [4]
4 Detention Sphere
1 Dissolve
3 Sphinx's Revelation
3 Supreme Verdict
2 Syncopate
3 Thoughtseize
Spells [16]
2 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
6 Island
2 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
3 Swamp
1 Temple of Deceit
3 Temple of Silence
4 Watery Grave
Lands [25]
Deck Total [60]


1 Doom Blade
2 Gainsay
2 Hero's Downfall
2 Jace, Memory Adept
2 Last Breath
1 Master of Waves
1 Negate
1 Pithing Needle
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Thoughtseize
1 Ultimate Price
Sideboard [15]





Click for full deck stats & notes!

Well, he gave me most of the list. Nine cards were cut off, which I pointed out. Roberto told me that they were “six Islands and three...Swamps.” Fifteen minutes before the midnight Sleep-in Special deadline in a karaoke bar is neither the time nor the place to be asking too many questions. I sent in my list and returned to my regularly scheduled karaoke.

The next day, I went 5-1 after my byes, beating out Golgari, Gruul, Dimir, Monoblack, and Boros Burn. My troubling loss came in Round Six, when my Naya Hexproof opponent narrowly beat me in three games. I nearly stabilized, but couldn't get a second white source to cast Supreme Verdict.

That night, when I mentioned having mana issues, Roberto told me that the mana was screwed up. The Swamps were supposed to be Azorius Guildgates.

Nine white sources is enough to cast double-white cards, right? Sure! (For a 40-card Limited deck.)

I flashed back to the match I played against Monoblack in the second to last round. A player looking on had asked me some questions after the third game.

“I wondered why you didn't just Detention Sphere his Desecration Demon, but when he dropped a second one, I thought, 'Wow! She's a witch!' But then you didn't cast the D-Sphere at all. Why not?” He was referring to a game I won by tapping down those demons for two turns with Elemental tokens, while using four of my five mana for two turns to beat my opponent of 13 life.

The answer was a bit simpler than he seemed to expect. “I never had white mana.”

Going into Day Two, I felt pretty grim. It's not a good situation when your deck's mana is mathematically flawed, but knowing that that was the case could allow me to play towards possible “outs” more effectively. Fortunately, the downside was mostly a problem for casting Supreme Verdict, and occasionally Detention Sphere. This was a biggest problem against midrange decks, against which my matchup was already generally favorable.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), I never really got a chance to play to any outs. I was immediately destroyed by a Boros Aggro deck. I was able to defeat a UW Control deck and a spicy Monored list with Dragon Mantle, but that's when things turned south.

In Round Thirteen, I played Joe Demestrio, whom I'd just offered the bottom bunk of my bed to the previous night. He destroyed me in three games with a Temple-laden Burn deck that he would later call “unplayable.” My Esper deck, with its handful of Counterspells and Thoughtseizes, was not equipped to deal with such a high volume of four damage spells and, after sideboarding, Toil // Trouble.

After that, I lost to another Boros Aggro deck, when my opponent drew five Soldiers of the Pantheon in two games. That's a problem.

I was fairly bummed out that my good run had suddenly crashed, like a bird into an overpolished window. Also like a bird, if I won the last round, I could make Top 32.

I got paired against Huey Jensen, and although I felt that my matchup against Monoblack was good, I decided to concede. He was trying to collect enough Pro Points to achieve Platinum in the Players' Club. Remembering how hard it had been to get enough for Gold, and knowing that I wasn't really chasing points this season, I was happy to oblige.

Amazingly, I still managed to cash after that with my 10-5 record. I was very happy with the deck as a whole, but figured I should at least… tweak the mana.

Esper Devotion by Jackie Lee
Main Deck
Sideboard
1 AEtherling
4 Frostburn Weird
3 Master of Waves
4 Nightveil Specter
3 Thassa, God of the Sea
Creatures [15]
4 Jace, Architect of Thought
Planeswalkers [4]
4 Detention Sphere
3 Devour Flesh
1 Dissolve
3 Sphinx's Revelation
3 Supreme Verdict
2 Syncopate
Spells [16]
3 Azorius Guildgate
3 Godless Shrine
4 Hallowed Fountain
4 Island
1 Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
3 Temple of Deceit
3 Temple of Silence
4 Watery Grave
Lands [25]
Deck Total [60]


2 Gainsay
2 Jace, Memory Adept
2 Last Breath
1 Master of Waves
1 Negate
1 Pithing Needle
2 Shrivel
3 Thoughtseize
1 Ultimate Price
Sideboard [15]





Click for full deck stats & notes!

This is the list I played most recently. I made the adjustments to fix the mana and the Boros matchup, which seemed like a serious problem. However, in removing the maindeck Thoughtseizes, I've also made the Esper matchup significantly worse. I would recommend playing this list, but swapping out Devour Flesh for Thoughtseize if your meta is dominated by control. It's difficult to get three games in if you're playing against Esper, and with these changes, it's easier to come back in two games against White Weenie.

Thoughtseize is a great maindeck card, though maybe not for a deck like this. It's a deck for which life is very valuable and the priority is really to stabilize early. Thoughtseize is an excellent, cheap spell to remove difficult cards from the opponent's hand while you attempt to stick a Nightveil Specter. However, most of the time you're on a strictly control plan and the loss of life is a serious hindrance. In these cases, the cards you see are often things you could answer if needed, especially if the non-Thoughtseize card was removal.

The Doom Blade was generally horrible, given the prevalence of Monoblack, and I felt that the Ultimate Price was (ultimately) overkill. There's already a considerable amount of overlap on cards that are generally better, like Hero's Downfall and Last Breath. Another consideration is Omenspeaker, which may be nice; it's a blue permanent that can count towards devotion, as well as helping to fix your next couple draws. Shrivel is exceedingly good against Soldier of the Pantheon and Boros Elite, but bad against Selesnya's Experiment One and 3/3s.

I also felt that Nykthos is good, but not so insanely good that it's worth the greed of playing two. This deck builds up devotion slower than Monoblue, and while it certainly has better ways to use the mana, I believe that the mana is too shaky to support three colors and two Nykthos. There are times when I considered using it as an expensive secondary source of white mana, and times that I had to sacrifice one of my Nykthoses in order to get an additional source of mana that turn. In short, Sphinx's Revelation is already very good without getting overly cute.


Matchups

The Monoblue matchup is good, because you play the same powerful cards, plus a bunch of even more powerful ones. After sideboarding, Gainsay is the biggest danger.

Monoblack is another favorable matchup since your slow, midrange cards are more than enough to take care of its slow, midrange cards. You have plenty of removal for its threats, plus Sphinx's Revelation to get ahead.

Most midrange decks, in fact, are good matchups. If you play carefully, you can generally answer all their threats, while slowly accumulating your own. It's not so different from the straight Esper matchup against Midrange.

Now, the bad. Super-aggro decks like Boros can kill you while you're still struggling to untap your scry-lands. After the addition of Devour Flesh, the matchup has improved, but if you mulligan to an awkward hand, that can seal your doom all by itself.

UW Control is okay, but Esper is not a good matchup. They play the same game you do, but your devotion cards can be easily split up, keeping you off of your deck's full potential. Meanwhile, Esper plays a single Elspeth and you're sweating. That said, it can really go either way.

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Burn is not a great matchup, either. The builds which play creatures often give you a good chance to stabilize and win with Master of Waves, but versions which mostly point Warleader's Helix at your face can be a problem. The maindeck change would actually help if these decks play Stormbreath Dragon, but you're still likely to be at a disadvantage.

One thing I like about the deck is the versatility of its sideboard. You have a very wide assortment of cards you can choose from for each matchup. There are very few decks against which you only have a few cards to exchange.


Card Notes

Thassa, God of the Sea
In this deck, Thassa is more like a Blood Baron of Vizkopa than an undercosted 5/5. It's a card you drop early in the hopes of fixing your draws for the rest of the game. Once you gain control, that's when she doubles as a closer. It's actually really cool and, in general, totally different from how we're used to seeing her perform.

Frostburn Weird
Frostburn Weird functions more like it did in draft than it does in Monoblue, since it's usually on its own. Sometimes it pretends it's a tiny AEtherling against Control, and while it's not excellent in a lot of situations, you just have to admire its fighting spirit.

AEtherling
AEtherling was a late addition to the deck—an attempt to improve the Control matchup, which did end up helping a lot. It's also good against midrange decks with Reaper of the Wilds. One danger after sideboarding against Control is cutting too many blue permanents to ever get devotion. Perhaps another one of these to replace Frostburn Weirds would be warranted.

Pithing Needle
Pithing Needle is a very versatile one-of in the board. It generally deals with Mutavaults, Underworld Connections, and the occasional Planeswalker.

Jace, Architect of Thought
I wasn't sold on four Jaces at first, but they're really important for drawing cards. Although this is basically a Control deck, it has more threats than normal, so Jace can do more work than he can in straight Esper to refill your hand and apply more pressure that needs to be answered.

Last Breath
I didn't see what was so great about this dumpy-looking Limited card, but it actually does everything. It can take care of Nightveil Specter, Master of Waves, countless beaters, and mana accelerators. It can exile Chandra's Phoenix or gain you life in a pinch. I think it might even tie your shoes—so play appropriately.

———————————————

All in all, I was quite pleased with Esper Devotion. I found it fresh and fun, and it allowed me to draw little “wave” creature tokens sporting Devo power domes. (Are we not cute?) (We are Devo. - Frank) As another plus, my opponents often confessed to struggling with their plays, confused by both my game plan and the tokens' visual pun.

If you decide to play the deck, please let me know what you think about the choices. I found advantages to both builds, so I'd be curious to hear your input.

Finally, I will be taking a break from this column for a while. It has been a great pleasure to write for you, and I hope I'm able to do it again soon. I've truly enjoyed meeting you at tournaments and hearing that my writing has had a positive effect in your lives. You've taught me very much as well, so thank you for that.

I hope that we continue to better each other for a long time to come.


Love and battle,
Jackie Lee——

@JackieL33 on Twitter
www.twitch.tv/jackiel33




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