GP Krakow is in the books, and since I attended that event and since I think that its results are really interesting, I thought I’d write a little bit about our preparation and my thoughts about the format in relation to the RPTQs taking place this weekend. Also, the group I prepared with produced one player who 9-0’d Day 1 (Andi Reling) and one who missed Top 8 by the narrowest of margins (Sascha Schwarz), so our view of the format seemed to be at least somewhat spot-on.
I was fortunate enough to prepare with the following group of people: Mike Hofmann, Ashraf Abou Omar, Sascha Schwarz and Andi Reling. We’ve become a relatively close group over the last one, two years or so, largely introduced to one another by our sixth member Benny Paulmaier (who didn’t attend due to being the laziest person on earth).
Now, these are all very talented and accomplished players, and I have no doubt that I rank among the least-skilled players of that group. (Although I like to think that I’m still able to contribute by being good at discussing theory, figuring out logistics and being kind of a buffoon.) What is even more important, though, is that everyone of those guys is one of the friendliest and funniest people imaginable, which makes it actually desirable to attend GPs in the first place. Magic really is about the people, and having great friends to share it with is the most important thing.
Anyways, we quickly established the following assumptions about the format:
1.) Thunderbreak Regent is a giant trap.
I’m not saying the card is bad or anything, because it’s clearly not. But most of the decks playing the card are just atrocious right now. Thunderbreak Regent mostly sees play in green fattie decks with ramp elements or slower, control-ish Jeskai decks, and both these archetypes in their current form can’t beat Control in a million years. We actually tried a lot of Thunderbreak Regent decks, especially of the Jeskai variety, and the issue was always the same: You really needed to curve out perfectly from turns two until five to have a shot against Esper Control’s superior answers, and that simply doesn’t happen enough of the time. Not to mention the fact that you flat-out don’t have a good two-drop to apply pressure apart from maybe Stratus Dancer. And as soon as you try something different and play a longer game with Dig Through Time and stuff like that, you’re just playing right into Esper’s strengths.
The green decks can bridge the gaps in their curve by playing ramp creatures, but it’s just delusional to think you can beat Control with 4 Elvish Mystic and 4 Sylvan Caryatids in your deck. Especially if you also run garbage like Roast and Draconic Roar. The Thunderbreak Regent deck that impressed me the most was an aggressive RW deck I faced on Sunday, with a lot of burn and aggressive Two-Drops (Soulfire Grand Master, Seeker of the Way). That deck can also draw the most use out of the Regent’s triggered ability.
2.) Esper Control is the best deck in the format.
If it looks like im harping on the matchup against Esper Control a lot, that’s because I am. We quickly identified Esper as the best deck, closely followed by Abzan and Mono-Red. I guess that’s not so much an “assumption” as “stating the painfully obvious”.
3.) The field is going to be prepared for Mono-Red and Esper.
Aaaaaand here is where our predictions fell apart. Both strategies are very streamlined and eminently beatable if you’re just trying, and we expected most people to do so. We assumed that the metagame would become more adapted against Esper after the Pro Tour, and playing with Esper against a bunch of Mono-Red decks, Esper decks tuned for the mirror and green decks packing Den Protector/Deathmist Raptor didn’t seem very appealing to most of us.
The problem was that this didn’t happen. Flat-out nobody respected Esper and they got severely punished for that. I don’t know if it was laziness, insufficient time to prepare or just an incorrect assumption of Esper as an archetype, but people basically played last week’s decks and got crushed by a deck that was already crushing last week’s metagame. That really shouldn’t happen by this severity.
I don’t think that the issue is that the Esper deck is broken or anything, as the cards to beat it are definitely out there. People just didn’t play them. Not even the Esper player themselves respected the Esper matchup. For instance, Sascha, Mike and Ashraf quickly identified Stratus Dancer as a great card in an Esper-dominated metagame, and Sascha played three copies of it in his Esper sideboard (he actually regretted afterwards not running the fourth). Sascha exclusively played Esper mirrors on Day 2, and he went 3-1-2 against them, his one loss against Alexander Hayne being due to a mulligan to five in the decider. His wins were largely due to having actual sideboard cards for the matchup, in contrast to most of his opponents.
I think Dragonlord Ojutai is another reason why people underestimated Esper, because it made a lot of cards that are normally strong against Control worse than most people assumed. It’s easy to look at an Esper decklist and say “Oh, this deck can’t beat Mastery of the Unseen/my quick red start/random card I didn’t think of”, but Esper actually has a solution for all those problems. And that solution is “Just kill them with Ojutai.” If your plan B is a 5/4 Thieving Magpie on steroids that basically has hexproof … then yeah, your Plan B is good.
So here is what we ended up with, deck-wise:
Sascha definitely made the smartest choice and simply ran Esper, correctly assuming that people wouldn’t run as much hate as we feared. It also helped that Sascha had two weeks off before the event, allowing him to test endlessly on Magic Online and learn the deck inside out. I guess being in the army has its perks. We all had a hand in his decklist in some capacity, but we still didn’t have the foresight/the balls to just jump ship and do what he did. Sascha 8-1’ed Day 1, started 3-0 on day 2 and had to win one out of the next three matches to draw into the Top 8. Unfortunately, his opponents in rounds 13 and 14 each narrowly equalized the match score in the extra turns, and round 15 saw Sascha mulligan to five in the decider.
Andi simply ran CFB Pantheon’s Abzan Control decklist from the PT, since he knows his way around a Siege Rhino and didn’t find a deck he really liked. That approach paid off handsomely on Day 1, where Andi won a bunch of mirrors to find himself at 9-0 come Sunday. The problem is that by the Pantheon’s own admission, their decklist needed like one or two sideboard cards more against Esper to really have a good matchup against it… which Andi found out the hard way by losing the first three rounds of Day 2 against Esper. So yeah, it’s probably fair to say we underestimated it, too.
Ashraf, for the most time, was undecided on which deck to play, ultimately settling on Mono-Red in the end. I think Ashraf is a very emotional player who really needs to find a deck he loves to perform at his peak, and while Mono-Red was a smart choice in my opinion, it certainly wasn’t one he was happy with. It obviously helps that he is a strong technical player, but in the end he failed to make Day 2 after starting out 5-0.
Mike is kind of a Jeskai expert, living in the Mystic Monastery since the day Wizards began to force the clan names down our throats. If anybody can make this color combination work, it’s probably him, so Mike decided to go with what he knows best. Unfortunately, he crashed and burned at the GP, reinforcing my belief that the color combination is poorly positioned right now.
As for myself, I ran this monstrosity:
Now this looks like a decklist only Tom Ross could love. While I normally tend to shy away from glass cannon decks like this, I really thought that this archetype had a lot going for it. I knew I wanted to play something proactive, because the format was looking very spread out with Mono Red and Esper as Decks to Beat on completely different sides on the spectrum. I also knew that I didn’t want to have a bad matchup against either of them.
Bant Heroic has a close matchup against Esper, but a good-to-great matchup against basically every creature deck out there, including Abzan Aggro and Mono-Red, both decks which I expected in great numbers because of their (perceived) good matchup against Esper. Also, this very likely is the best Dromoka’s Command deck in the format. The only really bad matchup is Abzan Control, but I didn’t expect the deck to perform very well this weekend.
Of course, while you might have a good matchup against lots of decks on paper, there is still another enemy to overcome with decks like these: Your own library. Sometimes you will just lose to your own draws with a deck like Bant Heroic, and there’s nothing you can do. And that’s probably something I didn’t put into account enough while testing and theorizing. I still think the deck is good, though: A slightly different, but interesting version of the deck got 9th, and another player from Munich Day 2’d with basically the same decklist as mine.
It might be that my decklist was just bad and the list that made T16 is the way to go. I changed some things from Tom Ross’ original list, like the two Monastery Mentors which I found to be atrocious. (It is true that your deck is very good at protecting them, but there basically never is a spot where you want to go wide.) Maybe I should have been more radical, though. Jan Ksandr’s list had some neat ideas, like the Heliod’s Pilgrims, which are slow but make the deck more consistent and can fetch Encase in Ice after sideboarding. I also hated Lagonna-Band Trailblazer against everything but Mono Red (which I never played), so maybe I should’ve just jammed more Battlewise Hoplites instead, even if that makes your manabase worse.
In the tournament, I went 6-3 (4-3 after byes), beating RG Devotion, RG Dragons and Abzan Control twice (my worst matchup!). My losses were to Temur Aggro, where I lost the die roll and mulliganed to five game 3; a heartbreaker against Esper Control where I managed to tap him out game 3 and needed to find one targeting spell with my drawstep or my Treasure Cruise, failing; and one against Abzan Control, where he had an early Thoughtseize and I just didn’t get anything going after that because I didn’t find another creature. That’s just how it is with this deck: Sometimes you steamroll them and sometimes they Thoughtseize your Favored Hoplite and you die with a bunch of Ordeals in hand.
I decided to copy Andi’s Abzan decklist for the Standard side event on Sunday, since I’m an avid Siege Rhino lover as well and wanted to get more experience about the holes in the deck and how I could fix them leading up to the Regional PTQ on Saturday. I was 3-1 before I mulliganed to oblivion twice in round 5 and dropped, but I still feel like I learned a lot.
Esper Control is definitely beatable, you just need a better plan for it. That plan could be hateful stuff like Nissa, Worldwaker, but I find that card to be very narrow and overrated.
Instead I’m more looking at the Den Protector/Deathmist Raptor interaction. They make the deck play out somewhat differently, but they do have the advantage that they are card advantage engines that are also serviceable blockers against MonoR, allowing you to drop stuff like Read the Bones from the maindeck. They aren’t very good at finding lands, though, which is definitely something that needs to be adressed in deckbuilding.
In the same vein, I really want to try out Sorin, Solemn Visitor again. Sorin is a card that is seldom great, but always serviceable against a wide array of matchups, and a card that is good against MonoR and Esper Control is something I am really interested in. It’s possible that Sorin just gets completely outclassed by Esper’s big, mean dragons, though.
Everything else is beatable by just jamming a bunch of Wraths. Also, everything is beatable by just drawing two Siege Rhinos.
This is where I’m at right now:
I took this list by Andrew Vaughn from the SCG Open T8 as a starting point. (As a side note, it’s really baffling how different this Top 8 looked from the one in Krakow.) Not too happy with the sideboard yet, but I really like where this is going. It’s possible that 4 Den Protectors is too much, and it’s actually also possible that Deathmist Raptor needs to go completely. I also might want a 26th land or a random Satyr Wayfinder, since this list has less raw card draw to hit its land drops. Time will tell, I suppose.
Best of luck to everybody competing in the RPTQs! Maybe I’ll see some of you in Prague.
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