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Three Burning Questions for Esper Players


The freebie question might be "Esper Control or Esper Hero" ... And it's a reasonable one. At last week's Mythic Championship III, Epser Hero finished generally higher, but the extraordinarily talented field was split.

There are incentives to both, but I do find the Hero side more compelling just now. While it depends entirely on who your opponent is, Hero of Precinct One can do something very special for Esper. No, it's not "attack your opponents and / or their Planeswalkers"! Why would I say that? Especially against decks that are more aggressive than you are (if not "aggressive" in the abstract), Hero can deploy lots of blockers to protect all your own Planeswalkers, with essentially no incremental cost.

The ability to develop your board - and by this I mean tick up your Planeswalkers and their loyalty counts, with relatively little molestation from opposing attackers - gives a strong incentive to Hero versus non-Hero.

Enough that I'd lean that way... But of course the page isn't entirely turned.

Hero of Precinct One (and its 1/1 cronies) are fairly low-powered at some point. People can overpower them in a number of ways; a Shock and a Goblin Chainwhirler trigger being perhaps the most teeth-gnashing... Plus, they often come with some undesirable card choices. Kaya's Wrath is not only a blanketly more powerful Magic: The Gathering spell, it gets extra value in some of the most attractive matchups. Ever kill three of the opponent's Nissa-animated lands? Ever been on the wrong end of that exchange?

The "Control" side have their incentives.

So if "Hero or Not" isn't one of our burning questions, what are?

  1. Should You Only Play One Thief of Sanity, or More Than One?
  2. How and Where Can You Get the Most Value from Thief of Sanity?
  3. Elite Guardmage or Basilica Bell-Haunt?

First up...

1. Should You Only Play One Thief of Sanity, or More Than One?

At last weekend's Mythic Championship III event, only three players registered the card Thief of Sanity.

Twenty-Two registered Basilica Bell-Haunt; only four (thank goodness - spoilers!) registered Elite Guardmage; and a whopping twenty-six played Oath of Kaya... But only three played Thief of Sanity.

I think that for one thing, this isn't optimal for the format. Not the "Standard" format, mind you... The format where everyone knows your deck list. You kind of have to play some number of this card just to keep folks honest.

You might recall that last winter I played a couple of FNMs with Izzet Drakes. One of my kids briefly tricked me into thinking she was going to want to play FNMs with me, and indicated she liked Izzet... So I foolishly bought a lot of non-Mono-Red cards.

Well, I actually had a better win ratio with Izzet than Mono-Red, winning all but one of the FNMs that I played it.

The one I didn't win is the reason I feel the way I do about Thief of Sanity.

My opponent was Grixis Bolas... But pre-War of the Spark, so only Bolas on four, not five. For five he had The Eldest Reborn.

I got Game 1 and sideboarded in a really rote way; taking out my Shocks because he was a "Control" deck.

Well midgame he answered my Enigma Drake with Thief of Sanity. I got all flustered because I didn't have Shock in my deck. I tried to remember how many copies of Lava Coil I even had. I knew I had "some" for Bolas... But was it four? Would I need four? Would I need more? Did he have four Bolas?

For a turn or two my Drake was holding off his Thief; but I knew he had the better long game; or at least better control elements.

Then The Danger of Cool Things got me.

I had the Blood Crypt. I had the one Blood Crypt!

Now Adrian Sullivan had taught me that Blood Crypt was useful because it was a non-Blue way to cast Discovery // Dispersal on turn two; you know, if you didn't have some kind of Island. But it had another superpower. It could tap for Black on turn five for the back side of that same Sorcery.

... That isn't a sorcery?

I don't know what got me.

Was it the excitement of figuring out an answer when I had no Shocks in my deck?

The narrow overlap of a spell I couldn't normally cast and the means to do it?

I don't think it's possible I didn't know what Discovery // Dispersal did... But I sure played like I didn't.

Let's chalk it up to FNM occurring kinda medium late on a Friday night, at the end of a long work week.

I tapped out for Dispersal on my own turn. +1 to my Drake; got in there, etc.

With my lands all sideways he played - you guessed it - The Eldest Reborn, I lost my Drake, and a couple of turns later, he took control of the game with - again, you probably guessed it - my Niv-Mizzet, Parun.


Now I made a colossal blunder to open the door there. No question. But that blunder came on the back of not having any Shocks in my deck.

When you play zero copies of Thief of Sanity in your seventy-five, you give every Izzet deck in the room free license to side out all their Shocks. You make their decks more efficient in games two and three, and take away any wondering they have to do about their answer balance.

At least from the perspective of Esper Control.

If you're Esper Hero, it's kind of worse. They probably have to respect your Hero to some degree; but you can make them second guess any tempo advantage they get.


Thief of Sanity is just a game winner.

If you've ever hit with or been hit by a Thief of Sanity you don't need me to explain this to you. It's so much worse than the 1997 Ophidian "lock" (which wasn't actually a lock). And anyone who played against Ophidians in 1997 knows what I'm talking about.

So here's the thing: If people know your deck list... I think you should play at least one Thief of Sanity.

But you're probably not playing that kind of tournament on Friday night; or on Arena; or wherever. I still think you should play at least one... And maybe more than one.

This is the deck that won Mythic Championship III. Along the way it beat many an Esper mage, including arguably the world's most consistent Standard assassin, former Player of the Year Brad Nelson, in the Finals.

Leveratto's deck 1) gets all kinds of messed up by Thief of Sanity, and 2) has relatively few answers to it main deck or sideboard.

This is a deck that I think might be on the upswing as a result of this past weekend's results. If you're into the good old Red Black, White, and Blue... You'd best have a game plan for it.

My buddy Roman Fusco played this version of Esper to 11th place at the Open to start War of the Spark Standard. Clearly the format - and many of the specific card choices in Esper - have shifted in the last month and a half.

But what hasn't changed on paper is that Thief of Sanity is a great direct follow-up to Hero of Precinct One. It will give you a 1/1 creature to put Simic on the clock... Or Planeswalker defense if that's what you need. Roman loved bringing Thief back with Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord (another card that has fallen out of favor recently), and gloried in the fact that he has just enough loyalty to make the one-two count.

If it's me?

I think I'd be tempted to go [back to] all four copies. Maybe even main!

But whether you are Hero or Control, I do think the minimum number of Thieves you'll want is one.

This brings us to our next question...

2. How and Where Can You Get the Most Value from Thief of Sanity?

Sideboard cards, well positioned, tend to be about four times as effective as main deck cards.

Think back to my Drakes blunder, or any time in, say, Limited, where you didn't have the appropriate removal for the opponent's bomb creature. Thief of Sanity coming out of the sideboard will often have magnified value.

The only exception to this might be against Mono-Green superfriends, which might have a third turn Vivien Reid after sideboarding (which can shoot Thief out of the sky) but no fast answer main deck. The card is clearly "medium" at best against Mono-Red main or side, but just great against anyone who doesn't expect it.

So here's a question... Do you want them to expect it?

[Tom Chanpheng from https://mtgtop8.com/event?e=9238&d=253024&f=ST]

Tom Chanpheng won the 1996 World Championships with a Mono-White deck.

I say "Mono" despite there being a Blue card in both the main and the side.

Sleight of Mind

In reality, Tom mis-registered his deck. He was meant to have the card Adarkar Wastes in his deck, but was forced to play both all Plains and the two copies of Sleight of Mind in his deck and side.

Set aside the deck registration error for a second... Some of the time Tom would be stuck with a Sleight of Mind in his hand that he couldn't get rid of. He'd be able to get rid of it after sideboarding... But might not want his opponents to know that.

In Chanpheng's era, Black decks played cards like Order of the Ebon Hand with Protection from White. Sleight of Mind could get rid of that, allowing Tom's White Knights to dominate it in combat.

But that's not all!

Imagine your White deck had to contend with this:


Now imagine the opponent had this in his deck to help power out first-turn Necropotence or Hypnotic Specter:

Dark Ritual

A White deck would be in trouble!

But not if the opponent were too scared to side in the Gloom.

Legends claim that Chanpheng played with the top card of his sideboard revealed instead of face-down. He'd actually signal that he had Sleight of Mind, which could scare opponents off of siding in Gloom.

So you see that even if you don't play all four copies of Thief of Sanity; even if you're not playing in a tournament where everyone knows everyone else's seventy-five; you can signal for a little value.

Heck, play just one Thief and don't side it in if you want! It might be better to get the opponent to leave in Shock and just manhandle them with Basilica Bell-Haunt and high loyalty Planeswalkers. There is value to be had here... And you'll thank me for that [minimum!] one Thief every time you're paired with Simic.

Wink emoji.

3. Elite Guardmage or Basilica Bell-Haunt?

I don't buy it.

I realize that the best performing Esper decks last weekend - both played by, ahem, elite Magicians - played the Guardmage.

But still, I don't buy it.

I don't think Elite Guardmage is very good.

It has been argued that the card is preferable in Hero, and that Elite Guardmage is kind of embarrassing when not hanging around near Precinct One... But that's far from settled. Top Pro Tour Champions like Alexander Hayne played Basilica Bell-Haunt rather than Elite Guardmage in their Hero versions...

... And tons of non-Hero "Control" versions played it too; not so for the Guardmage. Clearly you don't want to go the way of the 2wu in your non-Hero build, but it is simply not settled that you do in your actual Hero build.

I'd argue you don't want it anywhere.

My opinion on this is largely informed by my bazillions of matches as a Mono-Red player. I think my top record was beating three copies of Oath of Kaya (though one might have been a Teferi bounce-re-play) and three Elite Guardmages. The Guardmage only has 3 toughness so given all the Lightning Strikes, Wizard's Lightnings, and on-stage Spectacles, it barely slowed our actual little Red heroes down. Yeah, them gaining three life sucked; but them using all their mana on a dopey 3 toughness creature must have also sucked (while I got in with a bunch of lower drops).

As a Red Deck player I've beaten multiple Elite Guardmages many times... But I can't for the life of me specifically remember besting even one Basilica Bell-Haunt. I mean maybe I have at some point? But even the thought of two White mana and two Black mana coming together on four turns my stomach.

There are multiple reasons for this that go beyond the straight x-or-y cardboard analysis.

For one, the 4 toughness on Basilica Bell-Haunt is an absolute killer in Game 1. You have to spend two cards on it unless you specifically have a combo turn four like Goblin Chainwhirler + Skewer the Critics (which is a nice answer, I guess)... But in most cases, you're talking about essentially three cards to get it off the table. You lose one to its 187, you lose two to the kill, even if "the kill" is just running one of your guys into it and finishing the job with a Shock, you're way down on materiel.

It's not that this situation is so insurmountable... It's just that if they have another Basilica Bell-Haunt you're basically hopelessly down because they just gained six life and you're minus-six cards. Bell-Haunt is almost inherently supported by Thought Erasure coming ahead of it, and combines well with not only redundant copies but stuff like The Eldest Reborn which can get the opponent so many ways [while, obviously, completely stripping not only his hand but his future].

So for Red Decks? One Elite Guardmage is an inconvenient speed bump and little more; one Bell-Haunt is the reaper coming.

How about other text, and other matchups?

Let's look at the Tale of the Tape

Elite Guardmage:

  • Mana Cost: 4
  • Size: 2/3
  • Stuff: Flying, Gain 3 Life, Draw a Card

Basilica Bell-Haunt:

  • Mana: 4 (the hard way)
  • Size:
  • Stuff: Not Flying, Gain 3 Life, Opponent Discards a Card

Both cards cost four, which is why they are so often compared to one another; Basilica Bell-Haunt has the much more difficult color setup; but I would argue that contextually literally zero lands in the average Esper deck don't cast it. Sure, it'sbbww, but every single inclusion in most decks is some kind of Plains, Swamp or Plains and / or Swamp hanger-on. The absolute maximium number of basic Islands anyone plays is one, and it's generally zero. If you have four lands in play, the chances are high you can ring up the Bell-Haunt.

Size advantage goes to the Orzhov Basilica-dweller (obviously). There is no argument there, and there are tons of additional, subtle, advantages that go along with that. Bell-Haunt beats Goblin Chainwhirler in a fight. Thrashing Brontodon on the other hand beats Elite Guardmage (but bounces off of BBH).

"But Michael J," you might point out, "Elite Guardmage flies."

This is less of a feather in the Wizardly Human's cap than I initially thought. A 2/3 flyer isn't just not big, it's deceptively lame in combat. You know who has inexplicably been deemed relevant in Standard? Arboreal Grazer. You know who doesn't get past Arboreal Grazer? Thief of Sanity. But that's not who we're talking about right now! Elite Guardmage doesn't, either. I personally held off all my opponent's Guardmages with two Arboreal Grazers just this past Saturday's Standard Showdown.

Both creatures give you three life points when they drive by downtown L.A. So that's even.

The real question is what is better... Drawing a card with Elite Guardmage or forcing the opponent to discard a card.

Because the opponent sometimes has no cards in hand (or can empty his hand in response to Basilica Bell-Haunt's trigger), in the abstract I'd say the former is stronger than the latter... Only in this specific case you might just be drawing more Elite Guardmages. So I rest my case.