Strictly Learns Modern – Esper Transcendent Decknology

Those who are among my closest Magic confidants will be the first to tell you that I’ve struggled for a long time to get interested in Modern. I’ve given half-hearted efforts to build decks that I felt were interesting but inevitably, for one reason or another, I disliked them.  I ‘ve been bombarded from many angles, being told that all I needed to do was find a deck, stick with it, and learn it.  The problem I’ve found is that in order to stick with a deck, I need to be passionate about playing it.  I need to sit up for hours, thinking about how I can make the deck better, and spend my free time researching the deck. Star City Games announced that they were coming to town for a Modern Open this summer, and the clock was ticking to learn a deck to play at the event.

I started to learn Dredge because I found the deck to be super interesting. It operates on an axis that other decks don’t. Just as I finished collecting the last pieces of it, it would be banned. Probably due to the rumblings of angry mobs with pitch forks demanding Wizard of the Coast’s intervention in the oppressive reign of Dredge as the Dictator of Modern. I expected WoTC to cave into the angry rabble, so as soon as the deck was done, I began the process of converting the deck into a Legacy Variant and looking for a new deck.

A friend recommended an Eldrazi & Taxes list by Craig Wesco, so I began to work on getting the Aether Vials and other expensive pieces.  I built the list with paper cards and tested a lot of matches online. Before I even played my first match with the deck at a live event, I was feeling some concerns with running this list at a large event.  My biggest issue was that I do not enjoy what I consider ‘Non-games of Magic’.  This deck wins by denying an opponent the ability to play their cards in what is better known as ‘Locking them out.’ I actually found this to be zero fun while playing at a live event and hated being the guy who won by stopping my opponents from playing Magic. I do not mind this approach if I am playing just one event, and it is the strategy for the best deck, but if I am going all in on a strategy, I prefer it to be with a more interactive strategy.

A few weeks ago, another friend invited me to a private forum designed to discuss a fairly fringe Modern Deck, Esper Transcendent. The current iteration of this deck was originally designed by Francesco Neo Amati.  This group consists of nearly a thousand supporters of this deck, all working to test, practice and refine the deck for larger events. After reading many discussions about this list, and the different card choices, I began to get really interested in trying it out. The cost associated with these variants is no insignificant, and not having a limitless Modern collection, building this list for June will not be easy.

The desire to learn this deck, and find a good deck candidate for the Open in June, spawned an idea for a fantastic idea for a series of Modern Articles entitled Strictly Learns Modern. Over the course of the next few months, I will be chronicling the process of me trying to find a deck, build it, and learn a format that I am very unpracticed in. This will be a sort of ‘learn with me’ series.

I have done some preliminary testing of the Esper list, using the exact list from GP Brisbane that took 21st place, piloted by Dylan Brown.

Creatures (4)
3 Snapcaster Mage
1 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Planeswalkers (7)
4 Liliana of the Veil
1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
2 Narset Transcendent
Spells (25)
3 Fatal Push
3 Inquisition of Kozilek
3 Path to Exile
4 Serum Visions
3 Thoughtseize
1 Collective Brutality
2 Esper Charm
4 Lingering Souls
2 Supreme Verdict
Lands (24)
2 Concealed Courtyard
2 Creeping Tar Pit
3 Flooded Strand
2 Ghost Quarter
1 Godless Shrine
2 Hallowed Fountain
2 Island
2 Marsh Flats
1 Plains
3 Polluted Delta
2 Shambling Vent
1 Swamp
1 Watery Grave
Sideboard (15)
1 Dispel
2 Surgical Extraction
3 Countersquall
1 Disenchant
2 Meddling Mage
2 Geist of Saint Traft
2 Timely Reinforcements
1 Wrath of God
1 Baneslayer Angel

I tested a series of matches on Xmage making notes on the matchups without actually reading the guides available on this deck.  The goal was to see what I could gather about the strategy and the process of playing the deck from the cards alone.  My first impression of the deck is that it played like a toolbox deck as opposed to straight control list.  When I needed to be a beatdown, I was able to swarm my opponent with damage from Gideon, Tokens, and Snapcasters. When I needed to control the game and let my opponent run out of steam, I was able to control the board state with my variety of answers. I really liked this concept, because it didn’t play like a normal control deck in the sense where I didn’t feel like I was playing ‘Draw-Go Magic.’

Match 1 – Rakdos Tibalt Demonic Pact Offering

In game 1 my opponent worked so hard to get his Tibalt on board, as I disrupted his hand until he was out of cards. My Creeping Tar Pit and Spirit tokens killed Tibalt.  In game two, he played his Liliana of the Veil, and I discarded a multitude of Lingering Souls while shaping my hand to deal with his threats. I flashed in double Snapcaster Mage without using the flashback ability during opponent’s End of Turn with his Lili on 6 Loyalty.  I attacked her and dropped her to 2 loyalty. He sacrificed Lili to force me to sacrifice one of my Snapcasters. On my next turn, with 7 lands in play, I played another copy of Lingering Souls, flashed it back to add 4 tokens to the board, leaving me enough mana for the Countersquall in hand.  The opponent was out of cards in hand and had a clear board.  He drew Thoughtseize which I Countersqualled and proceeded to beat down with tokens and Snapcaster.

Match 2 – Naya Burn

Game one, after a quick beating, I started to stabilize on the back of Shambling Vents gaining life, until my opponent untapped and laid down double Boros Charm plus a Lightning Bolt, 11 damage was enough to close the game. Looking at my notes for Game two, they are very revealing in how the rest of the testing would go.  I simply wrote ‘Just got wrecked. Maybe I should read a primer.’ My notes also had some spots that looked like water-damaged, probably from the salty tears.

Match 3 – Sram/Cheerios

This match was also easy to define. In game one, my opponent played a sub-par threat, dumped a bunch of 0 cost bad artifacts on board, and drew a ton of cards. I untapped and killed his threat – skill game. My opponent eventually scooped to escape the disgrace of decking himself. Game two, he conceded to a second copy of Fatal Push.

Match 4 – Grixis Delver

This matchup felt very fun.  There was a lot of back and forth, and I eventually won. All of the games came down to very close life totals.  The ability for this deck to burn me out with Bolts and other instants seems to be a weakness that I need to understand more from reading how to actually play. I almost wonder if Rest in Peace is a good inclusion for the current online meta in the sideboard since I also faced some Dredge in testing.  In both games that I won, it was able to jam a Tasigur after they wasted their removal on lesser threats.

Match 5 – Dredge

I lost in another close matchup.  I feel like my plan could come together better if I had a better understanding of the sideboard and which cards to deal with when.  This matchup felt like a coin flip that was decided by how poor or how well my opponent drew (dredged) his threats. As it turns out, I was wrong in thinking WoTC would gut this deck, they just banned one dredge card (Golgari Grave-Troll) and was replaced with its little dredge cousin (Golgari Thug).

This short testing session was meant to help me understand the viability of this deck in my hands and to understand if what it’s doing is what I wanted to be doing while playing Magic.  So far I decided that I prefer to let my opponent play things, and then get satisfaction from killing those things.  It feels much more rewarding to let them play cards, then cut them out of the game altogether. I definitely understand that Modern will take a lot of practice to learn and is not easily figured out by playing a winning deck list.  I also understand that in the matches I lost, I most likely could have won if I was more practiced and seasoned with this deck.

My current Modern homework is to actually read the primers and guides provided to me and understand the right way to play this deck.  In my next Strictly Learns Modern, I will play some tests matches after researching the proper play lines, and see if I am still interested in playing this.  If I had to make a decision today, on where I thought I would want to go in June, it would be with Team Transcendent, as this deck does the things I want to be doing while playing Magic.

Good Luck and Have Fun!
Strictly

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