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Modern Esper Blade Update

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I'm back for another week of discussing Modern. The format is still diverse and my favorite archetype, Stoneblade, has plenty of customization. Last week I shared my take on Azorius Stoneblade and today I'm going to add Black.

Zach Allen and I recorded a roundtable where we reviewed various takes on Stoneblade in Modern. It can be found here.

We focused on Azorius Stoneblade and Zach also had a shell for Bant and Jeskai. After talking about the pros and cons of each version it became clear Esper should also be considered. We didn't have a list handy, but Zach put one together and recorded another video playing it through a league.

The games Zach played were interesting and his conclusions at the end of the video were very close to my thoughts on where to take the deck.

Let's begin with my decklist:


We're able to add early interaction from Black which significantly changes the deck.

Azorius Stoneblade operates at instant-speed because the primary form of interaction is counterspells. Mana Leak, Spell Snare, and Force of Negation all have their strengths and weaknesses; they make the deck tick. These are the primary candidates to cut in order to find room for hand disruption in Esper.

I have a split of Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize for many reasons. Both hand disruption spells have diminishing returns, but in different ways.

Inquisition of Kozilek
Thoughtseize

Thoughtseize combined with a three color fetch/dual mana base can be taxing on the life total. It's even more painful to flash back with Snapcaster Mage. If I lead on Flooded Strand and Thoughtseize I'm already at fifteen life. There are many Modern decks where my life total isn't relevant so I have the third in the sideboard. Batterskull can gain life, but once lifelink is relevant Thoughtseize likely won't matter anymore as creature decks have trouble fighting the Germ.

Inquisition of Kozilek is the desired turn one discard as it conserves my life total. The early discard spells often try to slow down the opponent's curve and the counters can disrupt the expensive payoffs.

Counterspells play a different role in a deck with hand disruption. I see the opponent's hand and I can tap out more aggressively as I will know the cards I need to counter. Snapcaster often flashes back at sorcery-speed. Esper is less focused on holding up mana on the opponent's turn and has increased velocity as a reward.

Teferi gets a huge upgrade in Esper. Since Azorius Stoneblade focuses on holding up mana to interact with the opponent I rarely utilize his +1 ability to cast sorceries at instant-speed. Thoughtseize and Inquisition are live more often as they can be cast on the draw step. This is even more powerful thanks to Teferi's static ability because instants can't be cast in response.

Spell Queller
Spell Queller has synergies with hand disruption as well. I can take creature removal proactively to ensure Spell Queller doesn't die. The same can be said with Stoneforge Mystic and it happens to play very well on curve.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor is stronger in Esper compared to Azorius. I play more of a tapout strategy because hand disruption is more proactive than counters. Black discard and Fatal Push ensures I cast more spells before it's time to tap out for Jace. When more of my opponent's game plan is neutralized Jace's Fateseal ability is more relevant.

There are typically three copies of Cryptic Command in Azorius Stoneblade, but the mana base of Esper demands early Black and White lands. Three Blue mana is a tall order which makes an additional Jace an easy inclusion over the third. The theme of playing more on your own turn is also emphasized by this swap.

Two copies of Opt seem strange, but Zach also arrived at a similar conclusion by playing three copies at the end of his video. Opt allows you to cheat on mana in Esper Stoneblade. Mystic Sanctuary being banned means there are fewer ways to make land drops relevant in the late game. If possible, I don't want to play more than twenty-four lands.

Snapcaster Mage is better by playing a couple Opts, but it's not essential like in Azorius Stoneblade. uw doesn't have enough cards to flash back without Opt, but Thoughtseize and Inquisition are generic cards to flash back.

I'm toying with a single Vendilion Clique because I can attack the opponent's hand more often. In the late game I can cycle useless discard spells or equipment when my hand is clunky. It's risky to play in a format with Lava Dart and Wrenn and Six.

A draw to playing Esper over Azorius is the creature removal. Path to Exile should not be cast on the first turn if possible to prevent the opponent from getting ahead on resources. Fatal Push does not exile and has a mana value restriction, but is a welcome spell to cast on the first turn. Azorius Stoneblade has to sink to lows such as playing Dismember, Oust, and On Thin Ice to deal with early creatures beyond Path to Exile.

Batterskull
Sword of Feast and Famine

I'm sticking with my two favorite equipment - Batterskull and Sword of Feast and Famine. Batterskull is still the most reliable equipment against creature decks. Sword of Feast and Famine is weaker in Esper because the opponent will already have fewer cards in hand thanks to Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. There are also less mana sinks in Esper because I need my lands to have more color coverage.

The biggest weakness to playing Esper is the mana base. We need more specific lands in our opening hands to cast spells. Jeskai is the only three-color Stoneblade deck with access to a Triome.

Field of Ruin is great in the Modern metagame because it destroys Tron lands, Cavern of Souls, and creature lands. I wouldn't feel comfortable playing more than two Fields. I will mulligan a good amount of two land hands with Field because no land can get all three colors.

Creeping Tar Pit
Creeping Tar Pit pressures planeswalkers and costs six mana to equip and attack with a sword. Teferi's static ability prevents the Tar Pit from getting hit by removal spells when it's attacking. I want three creature lands from Worldwake because they add two colors.

Celestial Colonnade is fashionable to hate on in 2021, but I still want one. Tar Pit specializes at attacking, but Colonnade is better at blocking versus creature decks.

Godless Shrine plays better than it looks on the surface because I only play two Cryptic Command and have plenty of 1-drops that cost Black or White.

The additional utility land I would consider is a single Castle Ardenvale. It's a land picking up steam in Modern after the Mystic Sanctuary ban. The drawback of adding a single color is more pronounced, but is very strong in Blue mirrors.

The sideboard gets some serious upgrades by adding the third color.

Kaya's Guile has tremendous versatility. In Azorius Stoneblade, I needed to play Rest in Peace to fight graveyards, Timely Reinforcements to gain life against Burn, and additional removal for creatures. Kaya's Guile is able to handle all of these requirements at once. The drawback is it's a 3-drop; Stoneblade already has so many options at this point in the curve.

Bitterblossom is another great addition from Black. It acts as a sticky threat to pressure planeswalkers and a repeated source of bodies for equipment. Since this is a similar function as Shark Typhoon, this is a straight swap.

Supreme Verdict is still required despite Black being more efficient at removing creatures. Fatal Push can miss certain threats and 1-drop removal is weak against go-wide strategies. I don't want a second copy because I would have to trim a Cryptic or Jace to make room after sideboard which is a wasted slot.

Engineered Explosives is an option I'm going to explore as a supplement to Supreme Verdict. It would likely take the place of the third Kaya's Guile.

A fourth Fatal Push is a catch-all against most creature decks. I could play two Path and four Push main, but I want a more diversified removal suite. I need to respect Stormwing Entity. I apply the same logic with the sideboard Thoughtseize.

Force of Negation loses value outside of Azorius Stoneblade because preemptively answering threats with discard has a similar function. I have fewer Blue cards to pitch, too. For these reasons I play three copies in the seventy-five.

Pithing Needle is an interesting sideboard option in Esper Stoneblade because you see their hand from discard spells. Typically decks name cards without knowledge of the opponent's hand.

Plague Engineer was suggested on Twitter as an answer to creature decks. It's another 3-drop, but might have promise.

I would consider playing Esper Stoneblade over other versions when the format contains more creature decks. Tapping out for planeswalkers is less risky when I don't have a risk of dying the following turn. I prefer the flash style Azorius offers if decks like Storm pick up in popularity.

Overall, I prefer Azorius because the deck is more consistent, but Esper does have fun and powerful spells.

In future articles I'm going to delve into other Stoneblade strategies such as OmnathBlade. There are plenty of options and they all share a common tradeoff of adding additional colors in exchange for consistency.

I'm excited Stoneblade is still a contender to be a top tier deck!

Thanks for reading!

-Kyle

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