Dusting off Esper Stoneblade in Legacy
Esper Stoneblade is one of my favorite decks of all time. Formed from the Standard-banned core of Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor, this aggro-control deck used to dominate the top-tables of Legacy events. Due to the high power and relatively cheap cost of Stoneforge Mystic, Esper could put its opponents in a choke hold early, and use Stoneforge as a must-answer threat and source of card advantage. Most games against fair decks would end relatively quickly if a Stoneforge was left unchecked.
Its power wasn’t stuck in the early game, either, as it scaled perfectly into the late game. Using Lingering Souls to apply pressure, combine with equipment, and protect Jace, the Mind Sculptor gave this deck an edge in the early and late game that no other deck could really match well. On top of all of this, powerful, cheap interaction, like Swords to Plowshares and Thoughtseize, as well as some more niche answers like Vindicate, partnered up with Snapcaster Mage to give this deck a toolbox of answers and card advantage.
Despite all of the accolades this deck has earned in Legacy’s past, recently it has been more of a relic of days gone than a force in the modern-day Legacy scene. Although some variants of the shell have put up some results recently, mostly of the Deathblade persuasion, the original flavor has not had its day in the sun for some time. This isn’t a random occurrence and three major factors have led to this point:
The Rise of Deathrite Shaman
The problem Deathrite Shaman presents is the speed of which it accelerates the game. An unanswered Deathrite Shaman is likely to leave the Stoneblade player too far behind in tempo to pull back from. In addition, one of Esper’s best tools for grinding is Lingering Souls, and Deathrite Shaman greatly impacts the influence that card has on the game. While Deathrite alone can be answered with Swords to Plowshares, or cleaned up with Supreme Verdict, this puts a lot of pressure on the removal spells, and allows the Deathrite player to dictate the pace of the game.
The Lack of New Cards for the Archetype
While most of the modern-day decks in Legacy have gotten some substantially powerful new tools to work with, none of the recent printings have really increased the power of Esper. While some of the new cards have slotted into some flex spots, like Fatal Push, most of the shell remains the same as it did in 2012-2013, and it’s a tall order for a mostly unchanged deck to try to battle with the new efficient and powerful cards that have entered the format. Even True-Name Nemesis, one of the defining threats of fair Legacy decks, didn’t make a huge impact on the way Esper is built, mostly because of what Lingering Souls offers this deck offensively and defensively.
The Face of the Metagame has Changed
Seeing as Esper had its heyday ~6 years ago, it shouldn’t be shocking that the forces that define the format have changed. Where Shardless BUG and RUG Delver used to dominate, now Czech Pile and Grixis exist. Many of the premier threats in the format used to succumb to the power of Batterskull and Swords to Plowshares, like Nimble Mongoose and Tarmogoyf. Now, True-Name Nemesis, Leovold, and Gurmag Angler rule the scene. Where the best answer for a Batterskull in play used to be Maelstrom Pulse, Kolaghan’s Command lines up almost perfectly well against it. On top of this, both Grixis and Czech Pile get to play Deathrite, which allow them to transition from aggro to control more fluidly than Esper, while controlling the pace of the game, and gaining access to incidental hate against various graveyard decks.
It isn’t just the fair decks that have changed and adapted, either. BR Reanimator is way faster than the UB counterpart, which increases the required speed of interaction. Storm has shifted more to the resilient ANT, as opposed to the more explosive TES, which makes discard spells worse against them. Lands rose to prominence in the past few years, which makes life difficult for fair decks without Deathrite or Wasteland. Even Chalice decks have significantly changed over the past few years. While all of this has been happening, Esper Stoneblade has remained mostly the same, relying on the same old tools it always has to control the game and grind down its opponents. This has all left Esper behind the curve of Legacy’s shifting metagame.
If all of these factors are pointing to Esper being a relic of the past, why talk about it now? Well, I think it might be well-positioned again, even facing down the seemingly stark situation it is now in.
Esper In the Modern-Day
This fact might sound counterintuitive to the points I just illustrated, but the fact is that Esper hasn’t changed because the core will almost always be able to win games. While it definitely doesn’t do it as efficiently as Grixis, or generate as much card-advantage as Czech Pile, Stoneforge Mystic, Lingering Souls and Jace, the Mind Sculptor remain powerful cards in the Legacy field. While I am not saying this deck will reach the upper echelon of the format like those decks, I think its unique combination of threats and answers lineup well with what the format is presenting at the moment
First of all, a decklist for this metagame:
To start, Esper has the tools to keep up with, and out grind, Grixis Delver. Powerful, diverse removal, Lingering Souls to stabilize, and Umezawa’s Jitte/Batterskull to close, backed up by a stable manabase, can go a long way in the matchup. This at least lets the deck keep up, and if Esper can manage to keep the board relatively stable, it can turn the corner very quickly. The problem is in keeping up on tempo, and actually being able to keep the board stable. Grixis can have a seemingly endless stream of diverse threats, and this, in conjunction with super cheap disruption, can be too much to overcome. In practice, though, this matchup feels close, and is likely relatively even, which is almost exactly where Stoneblade wants to be most of the time.
Czech Pile presents a different set of problems, most notably Kolaghan’s Command being a trump over the Stoneforge Mystic plan. However, where Esper suffers with the Command, it excels with Lingering Souls, and the card feels almost unfair against a spot-removal heavy deck like Pile. Lingering Souls ignores Leovold, pressures Jace, and makes Fatal Push look embarrassing. This means that plan A revolves around Lingering Souls, and the rest of the deck tries to support this. Again, this deck looks incredibly tough to beat on paper, but in practice, Esper has a lot of game against what the deck is trying to do, and ends up feeling closer to even, again.
Where Esper really excels, though, is against Miracles. I have always liked how the specific combination of cards Esper plays lines up in that matchup, and I don’t think it has gotten any worse with the banning of Sensei’s Divining Top. Lingering Souls is a MVP, Thoughtseize has gotten better, and Stoneforge can both force interaction ahead of schedule and generate much needed card-advantage. I think the core strategy of Esper ends up making it generally favored against Miracles, and with the recent resurgence of the archetype, I think this could be a large draw for playing Esper.
Esper still has the ability to tune its main deck and sideboard answers to line up against a predicted metagame of combo decks, and it gets to play a diverse array of answers and hate-cards. Meddling Mage is frequently an excellent card to have access to, the graveyard hate can be carefully chosen for an expected metagame, and it gets to play the classic black and blue answers that most Legacy decks have access to. All of this leads in the direction of the combo matchups mostly being the same as they always were with this deck, even if the combo decks are different than they used to be: Slightly rough game 1, but substantially better in the post-board games.
Of course, not everything is peachy in the world of Stoneblade. Lands is a very challenging matchup. Some of the sideboard cards help, like Surgical Extraction and Meddling Mage, but not being able to interact in many other relevant ways puts a lot of pressure on drawing a lot of the key cards, and that is a serious problem. In addition, despite the curve of this deck being slightly higher and dodging Chalice to some extent, Eldrazi can be very challenging. Thought-Knot Seer lines up well against Stoneforge and and exiles Lingering Souls, all while Smasher applies pressure and Eye of Ugin gives them an end-game that can’t be interacted with easily. This is easier to deal with than Lands because most of Stoneblade’s cards do something, and some of the cards can be really good if they can be cast, but this matchup can definitely be difficult.
Esper Might be Good, but Not Perfect
While I think Esper is likely a good choice right now, it still hasn’t really put up any real results. As I mentioned, two decks already exist in this space (Pile and Delver), and it is possible that those decks are doing what Esper seeks to do but more effectively in modern Legacy. Esper’s biggest claim to fame was always an even matchup against the field of Legacy, which promoted tight play and good metagame choices. For a long time, it was below even against most of the big decks, and didn’t really boast any incredibly good matchups. However, it is possible that the metagame has come around again and it might be time for Esper to show its well-balanced teeth again. This is the direction i’ll be exploring in the near future, and we’ll see what my old pal can do in this world.
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