Feature Article from Brian Braun-Duin

Do Call It a Comeback

Brian Braun-Duin

8/9/2019 11:02:00 AM

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“Passed by.”

“Irrelevant.”

“Old hat.” “Unplayable.”

“No longer viable.” “Tier 3.” “Fringe.” “Heinous.” “A joke.”

“Wow, I can't believe you still play that. No seriously, I'm struggling to believe how you can still register that deck.”

“The deck is horrible. It sucks, and by extension, you suck for attaching yourself to it. Walk me through the process by which you could have possibly come to the conclusion that this was a deck worth piloting, because I want to sell the movie rights to that story and make millions off the moviegoers who get satisfaction reveling in the stupidity of others.”

If you've heard any of these words or phrases in the past few weeks, you've probably heard them in reference to Esper Hero, a Standard archetype that was at one point the best deck in Standard. Recent days have not been kind to the king of decks, however. Esper Hero, once the jewel of Standard, has tragically fallen into disrepair. Believed to be no longer a viable archetype, its once staunch supporters have slowly trickled away from its welcoming arms and have instead gone on to greener decks and pastures. One by one, nearly everyone fell away, choosing instead to put their faith in Scapeshift, Vampires, Bant Ramp and the other decks of the format.

Nearly everyone.

One man still believed, and while he clung to hope, Esper Hero could never truly be dead. Its dessicated husk still held a faint glimmer of life, held alight by nothing more than his sheer desire to see it rise back to glory again. Perhaps its most stalwart supporter, this stubborn mule of a man was willing to do what no else had the willpower to pull off. He was willing to grind for hours upon hours, never giving up, no matter the odds, and no matter how many times he got absolutely annihilated. Deep down, he knew gold rested at the center of this Tootsie Pop, and he was willing to find out how many licks (getting licked in the process) it took to reach that gooey center.

That man was me. I'm that man. I grinded thankless hour after thankless hour of Esper Hero this week, getting dumped on figuratively and literally by Scapeshift, Vampires and other boogiemen of the format. It was relentless and it was brutal. It was disgusting and it was demoralizing. I did it because I knew something deep down that other people didn't know. I carried with me an unshakeable belief that Esper Hero was still a great deck—no, the best deck—and that all it took was time to crack the code. Where other people dismissed it or gave up on it long past, I never wavered in my resolve. In the immortal words of my personal hero (of Dominaria), Teferi, I knew “it's only a matter of time” until it was solved.

Only one other man was willing to take this journey with me. The Esper Professor himself, Shaheen Soorani, also held faith in Esper Hero, and together we clung to the old ways like the stubborn wretches we are.

Well, those days of bitter defeat have passed. Glory shines in our future once more. We did it. We cracked the code. We figured out how to make Esper Hero playable again, and once again, we cleanse ourselves in the purifying light of its eternal glory. Each day I wake up, and ask myself: “Shall I still play Esper Hero?” And each day as the sunlight peaks through my blinds revealing a bright and beautiful world outside ready to be exploited by the devastating power of the First Precinct's best and brightest, I hear my answer. “Yes. Yes, Esper Hero I shall still play.” The light smiles upon me, and I smile back.

The Challenges of Esper Hero

There are a few truths about Esper Hero. The first is that Esper Hero's strength lies in its consistency and power. Other decks are capable of far more degenerate things, but over a large enough sample size, Esper Hero will come out on top time after time. Those decks will smash you with their nut draws, but their average-case hands will lose to your better average-case hands. Cards like Elite Guardmage are weaker than the powerhouse effects other decks offer, but in games that grind on and games that attrition out, a card like Elite Guardmage makes all the difference. Esper Hero has to win those games that grind on, otherwise it isn't a playable deck.

The second truth is that Esper Hero is a come-from-behind deck without universal catch-up mechanisms like Kaya's Wrath, at least in the maindeck. The curve starts at two mana, and half the two-mana plays are things like Thought Erasure or Hero of Precinct One that will eventually generate an advantage but lack immediate impact. Esper Hero has to be able to interact in lockstep with the speed of the format, since it always loses if it falls too far behind. Right now, in full eight-set Standard, at its height of power just before rotation, the speed of the format is fast. You don't have time to miss a beat or mess around.

This list of Esper Hero is the lowest curve version of the deck I have ever played. I have more two-mana plays than I've ever had before and my 4-5-6 mana slots are as lean as they can be. Even the sideboard is full of nothing but the cheapest and most effective cards for each slot. Cards like Despark, which aren't good against any of the best decks right now, are still worth putting into sideboard for the random matchups where it shines. When that card is good, it's insanely good, and that kind of low-cost, high-impact card is essential to keep pace with this format, even if it isn't great against the top decks.

To summarize, we need a plethora of cheap interaction to keep pace with the format, but we also need powerful and high-impact cards to be able to outgrind decks, since we aren't exactly racing anyone. Those two concepts are at odds with each other, and in fact, the biggest difficulty I found in trying to figure out how to make Esper Hero good in this format was solving that problem. The cards that were needed to beat one top-tier deck didn't overlap with what was needed to beat another top-tier deck and the list was getting pulled in too many directions to be able to compete with everything.

Bolas's Citadel Is Busted

Mid
Low
 Bolas's Citadel
$3.22
$2.00
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The CollectiveCCG 5 $2.46
MooseCadets 1 $2.50
Toywiz 2 $2.50
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Magic MTG Card Bolas's Citadel Magic MTG Card
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The solution actually came in the form of a pet card of mine that I've been jamming for a while now. Ever since Shota Yasooka shocked the world (and himself, to cast two-mana spells off the top of his deck) with Bolas's Citadel at Mythic Championship III, I have slotted the card into Esper Hero to great results. For some reason other people haven't really picked up on playing this card, which I don't understand, because it's a sheer unmitigated delight.

At any rate, Bolas's Citadel is the solution for Esper Hero in this format. What's the best way to reconcile a lot of cheap interaction that gains life with a necessity to out-grind other decks in a format where every top deck ramps or cheats on mana in some fashion? Perhaps a card that cheats mana better than they can, turns life into card advantage, and synergizes with cheap spells? Bingo.

Bolas's Citadel destroys Scapeshift and Ramp decks. Along with ways to draw cards or manipulate the top of your deck, like both versions of Teferi, Thought Erasure, Elite Guardmage and friends, this card allows you to churn through your deck answering your opponent's permanents, adding to the board, and eventually just killing your opponent with the activated ability.

The degenerate things I've done with Bolas's Citadel are too many to document, but suffice it to say that the card's power level is straight busted, and Esper Hero needs this kind of degenerate top end to compete with the power level of other decks. Not only does Bolas's Citadel fling you full speed ahead toward the answers you need against your opponent's deck, it also kills incredibly fast. Your opponent may be at 23 life facing down a lone Elite Guardmage the turn you cast Bolas's Citadel, but they could very easily die the next turn. You may think I'm joking, but the 10 damage Citadel offers plus an immediate board presence from Hero of Precinct One and direct damage from Oath of Kaya adds up really fast.

Even in games where you are low on life, Bolas's Citadel is not a dead card. You can play any card off the top of your deck, which means that you can make your land drop from the top of your deck each turn. While that may seem like a minimal perk, it is not, as it ensures that you continue to hit land drops to be able to cast multiple cards in a turn and also helps you draw gas in future turns. With a Citadel in play, you will only draw a land for turn if you have two or more lands in a row on top of your deck, as you can simply play the top land each turn as your land drop.

Other decks can do more degenerate things but Esper Hero wins with power and consistency in games with average-case hands. I said that above, but it's only partially true. The partial truth is that I'm not actually sure that other decks do more degenerate things when you factor in Bolas's Citadel. The ceiling on Bolas's Citadel is your opponent doesn't take another turn. The card, contrary to popular belief, is not “slow as Bolasses.”

But that's enough about the Citadel. I want to talk about some of the other card choices in this deck.

No Maindeck Narset

Mid
Low
 Narset, Parter of Veils
$1.16
$0.49
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Galactic Gregs 1 $0.58
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Espeon Effect 2 $0.75
The DeeP 9 $0.77
DarkConfidant 1 $0.77
Lucky Dice Cafe 6 $0.78
AlanHawkCards 1 $0.80
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Magic MTG Card Narset, Parter of Veils Magic MTG Card
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First is Narset, Parter of Veils. Narset is not a playable maindeck card for this deck in this format. There are a number of reasons why. The first is that, as I mentioned before, Esper Hero is a deck that plays from behind without easy catch-up options like Kaya's Wrath. You simply can't afford to not interact with your opponent on each turn early in the game. You can't waste a turn casting Narset, Parter of Veils on the first five or six turns with this deck or you will fall too far behind to recover—and any advantage Narset acquires will be undone by you spewing your cards inefficiently in a frantic bid to survive.

Esper Control can afford to play Narset, Parter of Veils because she helps find a catch-up mechanism like Kaya's Wrath. Also Esper Control is not a good deck right now, partially because cards like Narset are too slow and awkward to be viable in this format, so I'm not even sure that's a good example. At any rate, Narset, Parter of Veils is even worse in Esper Hero than Esper Control.

The second reason Narset, Parter of Veils isn't worth it is because it's a non-multicolor card in a deck with lots of creatures. Narset doesn't generate a token from Hero of Precinct One, and it bricks a lot on activation because it's not unusual for your top four cards to be a mixture of lands and creatures only. Narset doesn't contribute to the synergy of this deck, and the only reason Narset was good in previous Esper Hero lists is because the format was slow and grindy enough to warrant that kind of effect. We aren't in that format anymore.

I think Deputy of Detention is currently a necessarily evil to compete with Scapeshift, and I think Elite Guardmage is a necessary evil to facilitate Bolas's Citadel, which is the essential engine to make this deck playable right now. Those cards all also synergize very well with Hero of Precinct One. Once you've committed yourself to playing that many creatures, it's hard to find a justification for Narset, Parter of Veils.

Beating Scapeshift

Mid
Low
 Deputy of Detention
$1.71
$0.20
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Don Father Games 3 $0.49
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Comics Plus 2 $0.55
Waffledude Emporium 1 $0.60
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Magic MTG Card Deputy of Detention Magic MTG Card
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I hate Deputy of Detention. I have always disliked that card in Esper Hero because it's the kind of card with an embarrassingly low floor that introduces variance and weakness to a deck that thrives on consistency and power. It is the exact opposite of the kind of cards that have traditionally made this deck good.

With that being said, Deputy of Detention is essential to the deck right now. Before I explain why, I'm going to take a moment to describe a concept in Magic that I think is often misunderstood (or maybe just not understood at all).

Beating one deck with another isn't about just playing cards that are good against their deck. It's about deploying a strategy that is good against their deck. For example, Narset, Parter of Veils is good against Scapeshift because they don't have a ton of early ways to pressure it and it shuts down the card draw from Teferi, Time Raveler and Hydroid Krasis. However, Narset isn't a plan vs. Scapeshift. You can't just throw random “good against Scapeshift” cards into your deck like Narset, Parter of Veils, Deputy of Detention, Ashiok, Dream Render, Unmoored Ego, Cry of the Carnarium and the like and think you now automatically have a good Scapeshift matchup. While all of those cards can be part of a plan against Scapeshift, they aren't a plan in and of themselves.

People's sideboards in Magic are often just a collection of “Here are my anti-red cards. Here are my anti-control cards. Here are my anti-combo cards.” and so forth. A better way to approach Magic is to construct plans and then figure out what cards are needed for those plans to succeed, rather than just throwing in good cards and hoping they work. The best sideboards have specific plans for each matchup, including how those opponents will counter-plan against you, and they utilize cards that overlap between matchups to conserve sideboard space. In fact, one of the main ways I felt my Urza Thoptersword deck was lacking at the last Mythic Championship was that I didn't find enough ways to overlap cards in my sideboard across matchups to free up space.

Instead of “Here are my anti-combo cards” you should instead be thinking “Here is my gameplan against Scapeshift and these are the cards I require to facilitate it.”

So how do games between Esper Hero and Scapeshift play out? Between cards like Teferi, Time Raveler, Arboreal Grazer, Elvish Rejuvenator and them quickly ramping to seven mana to power out Zombies with Field of the Dead, it's almost impossible for Esper Hero to swarm past them for lethal with creatures, even with early and interactive Hero of Precinct One draws. It's also very difficult to grind out Scapeshift, even with board sweepers, because they rebuild their board of Zombies easily and draw lots of cards with Hydroid Krasis to refuel.

Scapeshift doesn't interact with you very much, and they don't pressure your life total incrementally. They mostly just one-shot you, so you're free to do whatever you want without fear of interaction, at least in game one.

So then, what is the plan? The plan is to disrupt them by interacting with their hand and cards on the stack as much as possible to slow them down, using cards like Dovin's Veto, Thought Erasure and Duress (after sideboard). This isn't going to beat them. They will always eventually get their engine going, but it can buy you time...sometimes a lot of it. Since you can't rely on racing them with Hero of Precinct One, and since their Zombies are good at keeping planeswalkers off the table, you need a different angle to win. That angle is Bolas's Citadel, which relies on the fact that they're not pressuring your life total to enable a lot of free spells. Bolas's Citadel also turbocharges Hero of Precinct One, allowing you to get huge swaths of tokens into play to compete with their non-Scapeshift Zombie output from Field of the Dead.

The last piece to the plan is a way to beat occasional one-shot Scapeshifts which will put 20-40 Zombies into play, or subsequent post-Scapeshift turns involving Growth Spiral and Circuitous Route which can still pump out 8-12 Zombies. This is where Deputy of Detention comes into play (literally and figuratively). I've tried a lot of effects, from sweepers like Kaya's Wrath and Time Wipe to cheap spells like Legion's End, and Deputy of Detention is not only the best of the bunch, it's actually the only effective option. The problem with all of those other cards is that they are one-shot effects. The way the games play out you aren't effectively pressuring them, which means they have time to reload and they can draw enough cards to consistently find the tools to reload.

Sometimes you have to clear their Zombies not just once, but two, three, even four times in a game to be able to win. Drawing one copy of Deputy of Detention is often like drawing 3-4 copies. Every Teferi, Time Raveler allows you to bounce Deputy to play again on their Zombie Tokens. Every Tyrant's Scorn does the same. In a world where Scapeshift was by far the best deck, I would play more than two copies of Deputy of Detention, but I can't bring myself to do it since it's such a weak effect in other matchups.

Long story short, Scapeshift is one of the best decks in the format, and the game plan to beat Scapeshift involves a number of moving parts. You need to weather a number of mass Zombie attacks using Deputy of Detention, and you also need to beat them with a card that goes way over the top of the piddly stuff that the planeswalkers and Hero of Precinct One can do. That card is Bolas's Citadel. So while Narset, Parter of Veils is good against Scapeshift and while Narset and the board sweepers do get sided in for the matchup, Narset isn't a plan against Scapeshift. Deputy of Detention recursion and Bolas's Citadel to go over the top is a plan, and as long as Scapeshift is a top deck in the metagame, Deputy of Detention is an essential card for this deck.

Another card conspicuously absent from my list is Hostage Taker. The weird thing is that I think Hostage Taker is a good card against Scapeshift, Bant Ramp and Vampires. So why isn't it in the deck? It ties in to what I said in the previous paragraphs. Hostage Taker is a good card, but good cards don't win matchups, good plans do. Hostage Taker is too mana intensive to pair effectively with the cheap and reactive interaction like Dovin's Veto and it doesn't play well with Bolas's Citadel, for the same reason. It costs too much time and mana. Much like Narset, Parter of Veils, Hostage Taker is a good card but doesn't fit the ineffable plan. Weirdly enough, Ugin, the Ineffable also doesn't fit the ineffable plan, but that's another story, one the Jedi won't tell you.

Beating Vampires

While I think my matchup against Scapeshift and Bant Ramp are both positive, thanks largely to the game plan of interaction into Bolas's Citadel, I have yet to crack the code on consistently beating Vampires. Vampires is the other top deck that one needs to be able to beat to compete in this format. Is Vampires a mythic rare on top of my library in Limited? Cause it's a hell of a top deck.

I am going to say that I believe Vampires is the best deck in the format right now. While I would like to say that the best deck is Esper Hero, even I'm not deranged enough to spew that storyline. Yet! Yet. I'm close, of course, but I haven't quite gotten there. I think Esper Hero is good, and still a great deck, but until proven otherwise, Vampires is the best deck.

Beating Vampires is difficult for a few reasons. The first is that playing traditional sideboard cards like Noxious Grasp and Dovin's Veto maindeck to compete with Scapeshift and Ramp are doing us no favors in this matchup. Both of those cards are weak, although not dead, in the matchup, making game one an uphill battle.

The second is that Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord is a really difficult card for us to deal with. It starts with a high loyalty and goes up in loyalty, making it tough to kill with combat damage or with cards like Oath of Kaya. It also kills off our main engine for traditionally beating creature strategies, which is to generate a board advantage with Hero of Precinct One and Elite Guardmage while drawing extra cards with planeswalkers to pull ahead. Sorin is a reusable removal spell that kills all of our creatures and planeswalkers.

The last is that we are not equipped to beat Champion of Dusk. It doesn't die to Tyrant's Scorn, Noxious Grasp, or Oath of Kaya. We don't want to bounce it with Teferi, Time Raveler or tuck it with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Our plan to out-grind creature decks with card advantage gets undone when their five drop is annoying for us to get off the table and matches or outpaces our card advantage.

The problem with beating Vampires is similar to the problem of trying to beat a deck like Esper Hero. You can't just load up on some effect and call it a day, since they have a multi-dimensional game plan. If your plan is to just kill every creature, you will get buried by card advantage from Champion of Dusk or find that your removal is ineffective against Adanto Vanguard. Heaven forbid they flip Legion's Landing into Adanto the First Fort and you have to deal with a token every turn.

If the plan is to ignore their creatures and go over the top of them, they have a fast clock and Duress as disruption. If your plan is to bury them with card advantage or planeswalkers, they have cheap interaction like Noxious Grasp and reusable advantage and removal in Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord to deal with your threats. Oh, and there's Champion of Dusk to match you in card advantage for good measure.

Beating Vampires is not as simple as just throwing a bunch of Disfigures, Kaya's Wraths, and Cry of the Carnarium in your sideboard. I'm pretty sure it involves playing a mixture of high-impact interactive cards and powerful card advantage engines and just hoping that it outclasses what they are doing. Unlike other matchups, Bolas's Citadel is not a reliable top end go-over-the-top card because they put a lot of pressure on your life total.

Mid
Low
 Ethereal Absolution
$0.52
$0.20
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Magic MTG Card Ethereal Absolution Magic MTG Card
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I actually think that there might be one card that does go over the top of them and that card is, funnily enough, a card that I am notorious for on my stream. The card is Ethereal Absolution, and while I have not tested the card yet, I have high hopes that it can provide the kind of impact I'm looking for. Fingers crossed.

The Power of a Diverse Sideboard

One last thing I want to mention about my list is that my sideboard has a diversity of effects that I play one to two copies of, rather than overloading on any one effect. I really like this methodology for a deck like this. To start with, we draw and see a lot of cards, so it's much easier to find a card you only play one to two copies of than you might expect. Secondly, a lot of effects have overlap, like how The Elderspell, Noxious Grasp and Despark all kill Nissa, Who Shakes the World. When your opponent plays a Nissa, each of these cards will do the trick, but by diversifying these effects, I have more options in other matchups or board states. When I play against Mono-Red, I have Despark for Experimental Frenzy. When I play against Esper Control, I have The Elderspell to blow up their spot.

Even a mixture of two Kaya's Wrath, one Golden Demise and one Time Wipe is something I'm really happy with. Time Wipe is a more powerful effect than Kaya's Wrath, but sometimes five mana is too slow. In many situations the cards are equivalent, but in some situations one is better than the other and when we do draw both cards or see both cards with Narset, we can pick and choose the one that is most effective or engineer a game plan to maximize them.

Trying to win with Esper Hero in this format is difficult. Decks are so powerful and the margin for error in gameplay or deckbuilding are slimmer than they have ever been before. With that being said, I think a prepared pilot of Hero with a good list and good plans is still one of the most formidable competitors in any Standard tournament. A few months ago I wrote an article on this deck called Only Play the Good Cards. That's not enough anymore. It's now Only Play the Good Cards and Only Have the Good Plans. Are you up for it? I know I am. I'm up every day trying to get lucky with Esper Hero.


Brian Braun-Duin

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