Searching for my Azcanta at U.S. Nationals

Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin
Brian Braun-Duin
10/19/2017 11:03:00 AM
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I put my money where other people's mouths are. U.S. Nationals took place last weekend, and I decided to play Esper Tokens in the Standard portion of that event, basing my list off of other people's Tokens lists. I knew going into the event that Esper Tokens, or at least my version of the deck, was not the best deck for the event. It's rare these days that I will willingly play a deck that I know is not the best deck, but I did it for one simple reason. I did it to go back to my roots a bit. I did it because Esper Tokens is fun. It is a deck I enjoy playing. And I think that it is important to sometimes just play a fun deck that you enjoy over always just playing the most tuned version of the best deck. Lately, I haven't been doing that very much, as I have valued giving myself the best chance to win the event over any external factors like fun or playing a deck that caters to my style.

Generally, this means that I end up just playing a fairly stock deck that is a known tier one quantity. Decks become “stock decks” for a reason, and that reason is usually that they are just the best choices in any given format, and typically tinkering too much with the established cards in any given strategy just make that strategy worse than playing the accepted choices. While I didn't do well at U.S. Nationals, it was fun to abandon playing the stock pile and instead pick up the Stockpile. I'll probably be back to playing more tier one strategies in the future, but some of my fondest tournament memories are when I have played fun “BBD decks” and I won't look back on U.S. Nationals as a bust, even though I didn't make the Top 8 or find myself on the national team.

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I ended up going 2-2 in Standard with Esper Tokens. It felt weird to play a 12-round tournament and only play four rounds of Standard, but I had two byes by virtue of being a Platinum Pro, which took place during the Standard portion of the tournament. After those byes, I only touched Standard for two rounds before playing six rounds of Draft, followed again by the last two rounds of Standard.

I went 4-2 in Draft. In my first draft, I ended up with a Black-Red Pirates deck and I could not be more happy with how I drafted or played the games. All three rounds I played were tight matches that could have gone either way and in the first two rounds, I entirely won those matches off the back of cards I sideboarded in, which is the best feeling. It's great to take a card that wasn't good enough to make your main deck, identify a matchup where it would be good, and then draw that sideboard card in a spot where it is relevant to impact the game.

Day 2 didn't go so hot for me. I drafted a fairly good-looking Red-White Dinosaurs deck, but quickly fell to 0-2 with it. Mulligans ruined me in Round 1, and in Round 2 I kept some decent looking five-land hands with the appropriately named TILTonalli's Knight and just flooded out and died. My deck came together for the kids in the last round and I pulled off a fairly straightforward win to finish up at 1-2.

This put me at X-3 overall and dead for Top 8. I had done the math enough to know the dangers of our second guessing, and knew that X-2 was going to be the worst record that was capable of advancing to the single elimination rounds, and even some X-2's would miss Top 8 on tiebreakers (Sorry Jarvis). At this point I was playing for pride...and also because the people I rode with were still in the tournament.

I ended up going 1-1 in my remaining two Standard rounds, finishing up with a powerful 8-4 record and finding myself just barely out of Top 64 range, missing cash on tiebreakers. Going X-4 and missing cash on tiebreakers is an ancient GP tradition, and it felt just right to be able to apply this same feeling to U.S. Nationals as well. Normalcy had been established. I was home.

My tournament involved me playing against Temur energy three times (1-2) and Blue-Black Control once (1-0), so I didn't exactly get to play against a very wide range of the format, but with how popular Temur is, I probably got to play against a fairly accurate representation of the format, nonetheless.

Call this decklist Catan, because this is what I eventually settled on. This list is way different than the Esper Tokens list that I played in a video last week, and also a bit different than a lot of the lists I have seen online. It took a lot of soul searching – and also Azcanta searching for me – to end up on this list. I tested so many different versions of this deck, with so many different and rotating card choices. I also tested other token lists, like the Abzan version. I felt that this list was the strongest I had found.

Search for Azcanta is what made me play this version over the Abzan versions. I think Champion of Wits is only okay, as noted by me only playing three copies of the card, but Search for Azcanta does so much in this deck. It helps fix your draws, which is very important when you're playing a bunch of situational and frankly bad cards like this deck does. When it flips into Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, the foremost thing it does is that it ramps your mana, which is huge in a deck as mana hungry as this. It also gives you another blue source, which is also really nice for being able to eternalize Champion of Wits. You'll note that the deck only plays one basic Island, which means that you have to draw a Drowned Catacomb or Glacial Fortress, of which there are only four copies, in order to eternalize Champion of Wits. Search for Azcanta lets you cheat on that.

Activating Search for Azcanta is also surprisingly quite potent in this strategy. Generally speaking, cards like Azcanta usually have the stipulation that they can only grab instants or sorceries, but Azcanta has no such drawbacks. That means that it can find Hidden Stockpile or Anointed Procession and isn't just limited to finding Fumigates or Fatal Push. It can even find a boat.

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I didn't play any Sacred Cats because that card is just very underpowered and weak in every matchup except for Ramunap Red. There are no sacred cows in Magic, but there are Sacred Cats, just not in this deck. My Red matchup is certainly hurt by not having Sacred Cat, to the point where I think I am around 50% or maybe even less in game one. I tried to account for that by having five impactful sideboard cards for the matchup. Authority of the Consuls and Sunscourge Champion are both great against Ramunap Red, assuming you can keep a Rampaging Ferocidon off the table, which you have to do in order to win anyway. They will respect my Authoritay...of the Consuls.

I also only played three Champion of Wits, because the card is sometimes too slow or too ineffective to be worth casting. I also felt that with Champion of Wits and Sacred Cats in my deck I open myself up to lose to Scarab God. Having too many creatures makes Scarab God good against you, when normally that card doesn't do a whole lot.

One card that I played that a lot of the Esper decks have chosen to eschew is Renegade Map. I felt that this card was important in order to be able to reliably cast Search for Azcanta on turn two. With Renegade Maps in the deck, I have effectively 13 blue sources to play Search on turn two between the four dual lands, the Island, and four Evolving Wilds and four Maps. I didn't want to Overload on Drowned Catacombs and Glacial Fortresses because I didn't want to have too many of my lands come into play tapped. This deck is a little slow out of the gates and I didn't want to exacerbate that problem.

Renegade Map is also a nice one for turning on revolt for Hidden Stockpile. A first-turn Renegade Map lets you play a Stockpile on turn two and activate it, which is about as exciting as things get for a two-card combo which results in generating a 1/1 artifact creature on turn two.

Broke. It.

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 Renegade Map
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More often than not, you'll want to actually save the Map until turn four when you can play an Anointed Procession and use Map in the same turn to get multiple tokens out of a Hidden Stockpile. I typically don't crack my Renegade Maps unless I need to hit a land drop for turn, I need another card in hand to improve my Champion of Wits, or I want to enable revolt.

One card that I was extremely impressed with all event was Ixalan's Binding. I opted for two Cast Out and one Binding because Cast Out is more versatile, but Binding overperformed significantly to the point where I want to find a deck that can play four copies of this card. I never got to Ixalan's Binding a Jace, Cunning Castaway, which would have been a complete flavor success, and my failure in this regard rendered the entire event worthless as a result. If I can't even manage a simple flavor win, then what am I doing here, really?

Ixalan's Binding on Glorybringer, The Scarab God and Torrential Gearhulk proved to be dirty and devastating plays over the course of the event. A resolved Ixalan's Binding on a Gearhulk and a Scarab God is actually just game over against Blue-Black Control, as they lack other ways to win the game or remove the Bindings. Cast Out has advantages in that you can sneak it onto their creatures while they are tapped out, and also, you know, cycling, but Binding certainly has the higher upside.

I'm not sure what direction to take this deck moving forward. It clearly needs some help against Temur. With Tokens as a known quantity in the metagame, Temur can build their sideboard to be able to completely dismantle this deck. A Temur game plan involving Negate, enchantment removal, planeswalkers, and Deathgorge Scavenger attacks this deck on all axis at the same time and the pressure that cards like Longtusk Cub, Whirler Virtuoso, and Glorybringer can apply make it really difficult to weather their disruption long enough to pull out ahead.

Sideboarding

I wish I had access to a 20-card sideboard for this deck. Duress is a necessary sideboard card, as it comes in against Control, Temur and the mirror. Lost Legacy is an integral component in the mirror and against Approach decks. Negate is effective against Control, the mirror and Approach. The Scarab God is an important plan B against Temur, and the Ramunap Red sideboard cards are important to be able to beat the deck without Sacred Cats main deck. It's hard to find room to cut any of these cards, but I would also like access to Solemnity to fight Temur and cards like Angel of Sanctions or Fragmentize or more Ixalan's Bindings to improve my game against the mirror match. Abzan Tokens, especially, has a leg up on Esper by virtue of Vraska being able to destroy enchantments, as well as serve as a huge threat on her own.

I came into the event prepared to face Ramunap Red, Blue-Black Control, Temur Energy, and the mirror matches. Here are my plans for those matchups.

Ramunap Red

Out:

3 Search for Azcanta
2 Champion of Wits

In:

3 Sunscourge Champion
2 Authority of the Consuls

The game plan against Ramunap Red is fairly straightforward – you are trying to establish an engine that gains more life than the damage they can present every turn. This means that sometimes it's worth taking hits from creatures that you could otherwise trade with, sometimes even with profitable trades, if having access to your creature is needed to generate an even bigger advantage in future turns. This often comes up with Hazoret. Sometimes it is actually worth taking a hit from Hazoret if the creature you would use to chump block is needed for Hidden Stockpile activations on the following turn.

Removing Rampaging Ferocidon from play is the single most important thing in the matchup. It is impossible to win with the Feroci-Donald in play for more than a turn or two. Not only does it shut down life gain but it also punishes you by dealing you huge chunks of damage when you have Hidden Stockpile and Anointed Processions in play. Sometimes this means saving your Fatal Push or Cast Out for a Rampaging Ferocidon, and it's generally preferred to wait on casting Fumigate until you can nab a Ferocidon in the mix. Fumigate will still gain life, as Ferocidon is not in play anymore when the lifegain happens.

Temur

Out:

2 Legion's Landing
2 Anointer Priest
1 Start // Finish
1 Anointed Procession

In:

2 The Scarab God
4 Duress

Game one is favored for Tokens. You have Fumigate to sweep up their board, and they don't usually have any interaction for Fumigate. They also have a bunch of weak or dead cards like Essence Scatter, Abrade and Harnessed Lightning. The key here is just to get your engine going and eventually overwhelm them that way.

After sideboarding, games become extremely difficult. They usually bring in a suite of cards that includes Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Nissa, Steward of Elements, Negate, Slice in Twain or Appetite for the Unnatural, and Negate. It is very hard to navigate this veritable cocktail of disruptive hate.

My experience is that after sideboard it becomes extremely difficult to get your main game plan to work. They just have so much disruption for the token engine and thanks to Glorybringer and Whirler Virtuoso, they also have enough flying threats to just ignore it entirely some amount of the time. I like to change gears and provide an alternative method to winning, which is my good friend, Shaheen Soorani, who is also known as The Scarab God. TSG is like the TSA for allowing the Temur deck to fly. It's there to tell Glorybringer that their toothpaste comes in too large of a tube and will have to be discarded. It'll pat them down when they go through the scanner and it will have to search their bags when it finds Magic cards. It's a frustration and an annoyance for them to deal with. It's also frequently completely inept and ineffective, but hey, it's what we have to work with here.

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 The Scarab God
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I think Anointed Procession is kind of trash after sideboard against Temur. You still want access to some in your deck because it can close the game going late, but tapping out for it on turn four to not affect the board any is not good enough. I think you can realistically side out two copies of this card and I will always throw it out there as Negate bait and I am usually pleased when they do Negate it, as it means my later Fumigato will be a “cat”astrophe for them.

I'm not sure how to really beat Temur after sideboard. The Scarab God wins some games, but isn't always reliable. Solemnity seems like a nice touch, but is just more disruptive elements to add to an already robust disruptive core of cards. Solemnity also doesn't beat planeswalkers, Glorybringer, or Deathgorge Scavenger, and shutting out Harnessed Lightning or Confiscation Coup doesn't really matter when those cards are bad against you and will likely be sided out anyway. I would like to have access to something more proactive.

Blue-Black Control

Out:

3 Fumigate
4 Fatal Push
1 Anointer Priest

In:

4 Duress
2 Negate
2 Lost Legacy

This matchup is very favorable. They have a hard – almost impossible – time beating your enchantments. Hidden Stockpile is a beating against them, providing an endless source of threats and the ability to scry for more gas every turn. Search for Azcanta is likewise devastating, as even if both players are activating Azcanta, eventually your threats will overwhelm their answers.

After sideboard, the game plan is to just strip them of the ability to win the game while providing some amount of incremental value. You still have the same problematic enchantments in Search for Azcanta and Hidden Stockpile, but you also have disruption in Duress and Negate. Lost Legacy may seem like a weird inclusion, as it cannot hit Torrential Gearhulk and therefore only answers The Scarab God or whatever other cards they might have brought in against you.

This is perfectly, fine, though, because the goal is to just rid them of the ability to win the game. Lost Legacy on Scarab God cuts their ability to win in half, leaving them to just Torrential Gearhulk or whatever else they sided in as win conditions. Cutting Scarab God out of their deck is also just nice, because it means that you can play or discard Anointer Priest and Champion of Wits without fearing that they will come back to beat you later. After a Lost Legacy on The Scarab God, something as simple as an Ixalan's Binding on Torrential Gearhulk can then seal the deal. This deck also plays a lot of ways to beat Gearhulks, from chump blocking them repeatedly with tokens to kill them with Cast Out, Binding, or Start // Finish. If they are down to just Gearhulks to beat you, then I bid them good luck!

Tokens Mirror

Out:

3 Fumigate
4 Fatal Push
1 Anointer Priest

In:

4 Duress
2 Lost Legacy
2 Negate

This matchup is really dumb. In game one, it's all about whoever assembles more copies of Anointed Procession and Hidden Stockpile. That player will basically always win, no matter how much life the other player is gaining or has gained.

Postboard, there is a lot of disruption from both sides. Lost Legacy on either Hidden Stockpile or Anointed Procession is huge. I'm not actually sure which is the more impactful card to hit, but I'm leaning toward getting rid of Hidden Stockpile because of how the scry can help them find more copies of Stockpile or ways to disrupt your engine.

Siding out Fumigate sounds weird, because of how many creatures these Tokens deck spray into play, but Fumigate is never a way to win a game. If you're behind in the Stockpile/Procession game, it doesn't matter if you wrath the board and gain 50 life, you're still going to lose. I'd rather just not even have the card and focus on assembling the better board myself.

Search for Azcanta and Champion of Wits are both huge in the mirror match and these two cards provide a huge edge over non-Esper versions of the deck. However, if those versions are Abzan, they get a trump in the edge department, thanks to Vraska, who is absolutely devastating. Lost Legacy on Vraska isn't out of the question. Vraska blows up Hidden Stockpile and Anointed Procession, but almost more importantly, she nabs Ixalan's Binding and Cast Out. Vraska wins the mirror, period. It's important to have a plan for Vraska, such as Negate or Lost Legacy.

I don't think we've seen the end of Esper Tokens. Right now, I think the deck is solidly a tier two strategy, but I think there is still a lot of room for innovation, and I'm excited to see where the deck goes in the next few weeks. Most importantly, I'm interested to see how people figure out how to beat Temur with it. Temur is the only major matchup that is bad, and I think with a plan to beat Temur, Tokens can become truly dominant.

- Brian Braun-Duin




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