The Hero Reloaded
The most recent years in entertainment have been a real nostalgia tour. Everywhere you look there's a movie being remade, something being remastered, sequels being added to old franchises, or comics and books from our past being translated into popular films. Personally, I tire of this. If I'm being honest, I tired of it years ago, it just took some time to catch up. I'm hoping this trend dries up relatively soon and we invest more into producing new works of art and entertainment rather than rehashing the same stories forevermore.
They are apparently even making a fourth installment to my favorite movie of all time: The Matrix. I'm not sure how to feel about this. Fortunately they already made two sequels to The Matrix that spoiled the “this is perfect, don't make extra movies to ruin it” mood, so I've already gone through that grieving process. As an aside, The Matrix Reloaded was actually a great action film if you treat it as such. The Matrix Revolutions is less redeemable. The metaphysical themes underpinning the film were lost on me, with one exception. The iconic scene where Mr. Smith asks Neo “Why do you persist?” in fighting a losing battle and Neo tells him: “Because I choose to” is one of my favorite moments in film.
On one hand, I love the Matrix world and am excited to see if they can make a banging new movie that I will enjoy as part of the series. On the other hand, I suspect the new movie probably won't be very good. Either way, I'm going to see it and give them my money. And I guess that's a fairly good summary of why these nostalgia movies keep being produced. Good or bad, overdone or fresh, I still keep giving them my money.
The same could be said about Esper Hero. Good or bad, I keep donating my money into entry fees to play this deck. I operate on nostalgia for the good ol' days where Esper Hero was great and pray that this new iteration will capture that original experience again, even though I suspect it ultimately won't. Either way, it'll get my time and money. I'm paying the tax on hope.
There are three major reasons that Esper Hero is not currently a top-tier strategy.
#1: The loss of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria was a massive blow to the deck, larger than I ever expected, even despite my intense love affair with the card. I thought that Teferi's rotation would hurt the deck, but I didn't think it would straight-up kill it. Teferi was the glue that held the Bolas's Citadel build together. That hole needs to be filled.
#2: The mana base had some issues, even when it could play 12 check lands (Drowned Catacomb, et al) and 12 shock lands (Watery Grave and friends). Once the check lands rotated out, the mana took a massive hit. Temples are just not quite able to cut it in today's fast-paced Standard environment. You don't have time to eff around. Temples coming into play tapped means that shock lands are going to have to come into play untapped a large amount of the time to play on curve. That damage adds up significantly if you're Shocking yourself three times a game.
#3: It just isn't as good as other things in the format. Hero of Precinct One couldn't match up on power level against things like Field of the Dead and Oko, Thief of Crowns. Even with those cards banned, Nissa and Hydroid Krasis are still tough to win against. The card advantage and removal of Mayhem Devil, Witch's Oven, Trail of Crumbs and Cauldron Familiar is also difficult to power through. Even decks like Rakdos aren't easy matchups. Embercleave beats Hero's chump-block oriented game plan and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria no longer exists to provide the trump to that.
Hero, Beyond Death
Hope springs eternal, though. With Theros Beyond Death on the horizon I hope that Esper Hero can also come back from beyond death to be a reasonable deck in the field again. Fixing problem number two, the mana base, seems unworkable with current tools. The best you can do is make it semi-workable and hope it plays, but the other two problems can easily be corrected if powerful new cards from Theros can plug those gaps. There are a few cards from the set that make me think this isn't just an idle hope but something that could actually be realized.
The first is Ashiok, Nightmare Muse.
This card looks great. I think it actually stands a chance to fill the hole that Teferi, Hero of Dominaria left, which is saying a lot. Ashiok doesn't provide the raw, unfettered card advantage that Teferi offered, but in some regards Ashiok is actually a structurally better fit than Teferi was for a midrange top-end card. Ashiok plays to the board significantly better than Teferi did. It has a higher starting loyalty, produces blockers to protect itself, and has a similar “-3 to get rid of something” ability that Teferi had. Those are all better “board advantage” abilities.
Midrange decks are all about playing to the board. They create advantages on the battlefield and then press those advantages until the inherent card advantage from good exchanges eventually adds up to a win. Teferi was an anomaly as a midrange powerhouse, because it didn't really play to the board that well. It was just so unreasonably powerful that it won games anyway. With Hero of Precinct One in play it could also produce a blocker, which was not irrelevant.
Ashiok is different, because Ashiok actually does play incredibly well to the board on its own—thus, while it's likely not as powerful as Teferi in a vacuum, it could be just as good or even better in this deck. Ashiok will play the role of an amazing stabilizing force against aggressive decks and a trump in midrange battles. Ashiok is going to be less good than Teferi against decks that don't subscribe to either of those playstyles. Decks that go over the top or decks that execute a grindy game plan, like the Food decks, will need to be beaten with other cards.
Evaluating planeswalkers on the basis of their high loyalty ultimates is generally a fairly meaningless endeavor, as the ultimates rarely get reached without the planeswalker having basically already won the game by being in play that long unchecked. Teferi is a good example. A Teferi that ticked up to 8 loyalty drew four cards and, based on some definitions, provided eight extra mana. The ultimate often put the game away, but in most cases, the game was already won with the advantages amassed over the meantime.
Ashiok looks different to me. Ashiok starts at 5 (going to 6) loyalty and the ultimate is at 7, which means that it only takes two turns of ticking up to reach ultimate level. Since ticking up Ashiok also produces a blocker to protect Ashiok, this seems less like a pipe dream or a “I'm already winning” scenario and more like a reasonable expectation to happen in a game of Magic. It may seem unlikely that your opponent will have enough cards worth casting in exile by that point in the game, but combining the ability on the 2/3 Nightmare creatures with other exile cards and effects could make it happen. Escape exiles cards, as does Despark.
The other card I'm interested in is Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths.
Atris has similar stats and evasion as something like Elite Guardmage, but Atris offers better card selection and deals more damage than Guardmage does, and also matches up significantly better against Nissa, Who Shakes the World.
The advantage of Elite Guardmage was that it gained life for Bolas's Citadel. I no longer believe that is the way you should build Esper Hero. Bolas' Citadel as a top end relied heavily on Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to work properly. Teferi provided card advantage to get to Bolas's Citadel and six lands, and Teferi was an easy no-mana way to reset the top of your library with a Citadel in play to keep the train going. Bolas's Citadel is also significantly worse now that the mana base is less cohesive and requires you to shock yourself more often.
With Teferi gone and Bolas's Citadel not as good as it used to be, I believe that Esper Hero has to be played differently than it was in the past. Previously, Esper Hero played more like a midrange-control deck where it mostly assumed a control role in each matchup, but could win games quickly with Hero of Precinct One if needed.
Now, I think Esper Hero needs to be played like more of a true-midrange deck or even an aggressive-minded midrange deck. Gone are the days of beating every deck going late by just grinding them out with a better endgame. Now the deck needs to beat the opponent on interactions on turns two through six and press that advantage into a win in a reasonable time frame, like midrange decks traditionally operate.
Card advantage—at least traditional card advantage of simply drawing extra cards—doesn't really factor into that game plan. You don't have time. Instead, you need to generate card advantage through your cards producing more than one card's worth of effect. Each card needs to add to the board and it needs to produce an advantage. Elite Guardmage is a questionable inclusion, because a four-mana 2/3 only adds to the board in some subset of games.
Atris, Oracle of Half-Truths, while appearing like a cosmetic upgrade on Elite Guardmage, is more than that. Atris has an aggressive bent with menace and more power than toughness, helping it press an advantage to close the game faster, whereas Guardmage was designed to block. Atris also provides better selection than Guardmage, helping you get directly to whatever card you need next to add more to the board the following turn.
Atris also pressures Nissa in much better and meaningful ways. Atris trades with the 3/3 lands, which is already better than Elite Guardmage, but it can also kill Nissa the turn after it's played in many scenarios. Atris and Oath of Kaya team up together to deal 6 damage to Nissa. In the most common scenario, the Nissa player will only have a 3/3 land to block with, which won't work against menace on Atris. An early Hero of Precinct One into an Atris into an Oath of Kaya on the Nissa land also does the trick perfectly. Your opponent is down a land, and a Hero plus token plus Atris is exactly 6 damage to attack Nissa to death.
One last card to note is Kunoros, Hound of Athreos. This is the kind of card that looks like it would be good in Esper, especially with the mentality of closing games and being aggressive that I noted above. I don't think that will be the case. Creatures that don't provide any advantage beyond attacking and blocking almost never make the cut in midrange decks unless they are on Tarmogoyf power levels. A Trained Armodon with a few (often marginal) abilities isn't there.
A Reboot for Non-Theros Cards
There are also a number of cards that aren't in Theros Beyond Death that I think will have a role to play in Esper Hero once the new set drops.
One is Lochmere Serpent.
I prefer this over Bolas's Citadel as a finisher in the true-midrange version of the Esper Hero archetype, instead of the midrange-control version that existed before. Lochmere Serpent is a powerful card. It deals a lot of evasive damage, and it can (albeit painfully) provide some card advantage. The recursive ability on the card is also a great counter to the escape mechanic and it plays well with Ashiok, Nightmare Muse. Fair counterpoint: escape is also a natural counter to Lochmere Serpent's recursive ability. Just depends who gets there first.
Lochmere Serpent is also nice with Atris. You can dump the pile with the Serpent and then get it back later.
Another returning card is Mortify.
Mortify plays better with Hero of Precinct One than Murderous Rider does, and it already blows up a lot of good enchantments like Trail of Crumbs and Fires of Invention. With Theros Beyond Death pushing enchantments, it's hard to imagine that Mortify doesn't leap to the forefront as a powerful and versatile removal option once again. Mortify is also much easier to cast than Murderous Rider, which is not irrelevant. One of each of two colors is generally simpler to assemble than two of one color in a three-color deck that tries to balance its color counts.
A third card to consider is Drown in the Loch. I think this card is phenomenal in small doses in Esper Hero, but I won't be initially including any copies in my lists. I think with escape as a mechanic, it's just going to be a dead card too often to warrant inclusion. You can't even counter an escaped card with it if they exile too many cards as part of the cost of escaping.
Here's a rough draft of what I'm thinking of for a list.
Here's to one more reunion tour.
Brian Braun-Duin is a professional Magic player, member of the 2020 Magic Pro League and recurring special guest on the Bash Bros Podcast.