Conflux: Esper Air Assault Review (Part 1 of 2)
In our last review, we returned to Grixis to see what had changed since the shards collided with one another, and began to reach out and explore their long-lost brethren. Today we’ll be moving one notch to the left in the colour wheel, to the orderly and artificial world of Esper.
The shard of Esper is the answer to the question of, what happens to a world when its most natural elements- as represented by Green and Red mana- are no longer present as the world grows and evolves? This state of being is represented mechanically by the denizens of Esper moreso than any particular keyword or ability, unlike the unearth of Grixis or Bant’s exalted. Esper, you see, is more a state of being, a move towards unfaltering, unblemished perfection by improvement of the natural world. Consequently, because of their fusion with the aether-infused metal of etherium, which has been used to replace parts of their bodies, all inhabitants of the shard of Esper are artifact creatures.
When combined with the deck’s name, we then get a full sense of what Esper Air Assault is looking to do and how it goes about doing it. Using synergistic artifact cards to get more than your mana’s worth through creature discounts and card advantage, you are looking to establish aerial dominance over your opponent and clinch victory in the skies. As you might expect, this is a fairly creature-heavy deck with only a few noncreature options, so you’ll be imposing your will on the game almost exclusively in the red zone.
With eight of your eighteen creatures all being flyers, it seems only natural that we begin there. Your aerial options come at every mana point in the game, though are heavily concentrated in your three-drops. The three-drop slot tends to be the pivot point which separates aggressive decks from your more midrange options, with the logic being that a deck heavily loaded with one- and two-drops can start playing multiple cards as early as your second land drop, but decks with a higher content of three-drops will look to play a single card more often off that third land. This deck won’t be one that wins many races, but instead will achieve its objective by clogging up the ground and whittling away at its opponent’s life in the air.
To begin, there is in fact a flying two-drop here, the Darklit Gargoyle. Getting a potential three power in the air off of two mana is a good buy, though you do have to sink some mana into it each turn to power it up. There are a couple other creatures with similar abilities in the deck, so you may find yourself using all the mana open to you even later in the game.
Next we have a pair of Parasitic Strix one more rung up the mana curve. A 2/2 flyer for three mana is fine, and they have a bonus syphon effect if you happen to have a Black permanent in play when you cast them. With exactly one-third of the decks permanents considered Black, you should have little difficulty getting full value from your Strix. Then there’s the Esperzoa, the first creature we’ve seen thus far that capitalises on your deck’s artifact-based synergy. This Jellyfish comes at a steal of a price- three mana for a 4/3- but with a peculiar drawback- each upkeep you must return an artifact you control to your hand. With enough creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities (like the Strixes), this can turn the drawback into an advantage, but Esper Air Assault has precious few. Still, there are enough synergies involved with that trick that you can find it to your advantage. By way of example, if you have a cheap artifact out, something like the Executioner’s Capsule or Court Homunculus, as well as the Sludge Strider, you can syphon your opponent each turn for two mana- while keeping your 4/3 beatstick on the table where it belongs. These sorts of tricks won’t combo your opponent out of the game, but they do give you some small and repeatable advantage which will tip the scale a few points in your favour.
Our last three-drop is the Windwright Mage. In our review of Grixis Shambling Army, we asked what a creature costing one mana of each of the shard’s colours would look like. For Grixis, it was the Kederekt Creeper. In Esper, you get the Windwright Mage, a 2/2 with conditional flying which has lifelink. Like the Esperzoa, she is most at home in an artifact-heavy deck, and this one certainly qualifies. More often than not, you should find her taking to the skies.
In the four-drops we find another creature that combos well with your Esperzoa, the humble Faerie Mechanist. The Mechanist lets you look at the top three cards of your library, and keep one of them if it is an artfiact. To measure the efficacy of this, again we’ll want to look at the numbers. Of the deck’s 41 cards, just under 50% of them (21) are artifacts. That means you should expect to get a free card off of the machinist with statistical certainty (though of course, you will occasionally whiff). Meanwhile, the humble-sounding Esper Cormorants actually pack quite a punch as a vanilla 3/3.
At the top of the mana curve for flyers we find one of the deck’s rare cards. The Magister Sphinx is part of a collection of creatures which cost between 5-7 mana, and need one of each colour. Each of the five Conflux decks have one, such as the Blood Tyrant of Grixis Shambling Army or the Skyward Eye Prophets of Bant on the March. A robust 5/5 flyer, the Sphinx has an intriguing special ability- whenever it enters play, a target player’s life total is set at 10. This is less of an offensive threat than it seems- unless you’ve been completely neutered the entire game, you should have gotten your opponent down towards that total already in the first seven-plus turns of the game required to bring this fellow on-line. Indeed, if things are going particularly well, its certainly possible that this ability will come across as a drawback, with your life already above ten and your opponent’s below it. Whom, then, do you choose? Of course, if you are in such a position, adding a 5/5 flyer to the board should close the game out regardless.
Descending now from lofty heights, we look to review our ground troops. These are the creatures that will look to hold the line, keeping your opponent’s beaters as bay while your air force goes about its grim business. Indeed, many of these creatures are offensive threats of their own, and will help speed your way to triumph. Esper Air Assault requires you to manage both if you are to prevail against your opponent.
As mentioned earlier, there is a subtheme of cards in Esper Air Assault which care about other artifacts, and we lead off with one: the humble Court Homunculus. A pedestrian 1/1 for one mana that has the ability to become a slightly-more-exciting 2/2 for the same cost if you have another artifact in play. From there we go to the two-drops, leading with the on-theme Salvage Slasher. Another 1/1, the Slasher looks to solve the problem of irrelevance most 1/1’s tend to face when drawn late into the game. In the Slasher’s case, thats’ a bump in power if you’ve had a few of your relics fall by the wayside. Of course, that 1 toughness stays the same, so you might not get a second attack with him. Still, on defense he can potentially fell a much larger beastie, and may often be better suited to rearguard responsibilities.
From there we have the unusual Tidehollow Sculler. Hand-disruption-on-a-stick that lasts as long as the Sculler does, you might often find yourself needing to keep him safely out of harm’s way if you’ve stumbled upon something particularly juicy in your opponent’s hand. Still, if it’s not worth the bother (a late land, for instance), you at least have another 2/2 bear to clog up the red zone with. Finally, a pair of Vedalken Outlanders round out the slot, giving you some extra value against decks with a Red component. As we mentioned in our Grixis Shambling Army review, we’re not big fans of the protection mechanic in the half-Constructed/half-Limited preconstructed environment, though they work here better than in some other decks due to the three-colour component.
Without any nonflying three-drops to speak of, we next look at one of the deck’s combo-esque cards, Sludge Strider. A four-mana 3/3 isn’t the worst deal outside of Green, though the heavy colour commitment means that you won’t always get to deploy this one as early as you’d like. Still, if you can manage to get it out early enough to be relevant, the Strider can give you a great deal of incremental advantage over the course of the game as most everything you play is an artifact. Also at the four-drop slot is the Scornful Æther-Lich. A card in the mould of the Darklit Gargoyle, he gets significantly better if you happen to have some extra mana laying about each turn. His high toughness should also make him valuable in keeping the red zone nice and congested on the ground. One final mana sink comes in the form of a Vectis Agents. Like the Æther-Lich, they can become an unblockable 2-power every turn, though unlike the Lich they’re effective against any colour deck.
Finally we come to the deck’s top-of-curve alpha beater, and it’s a monster: Inkwell Leviathan. If you can land a 7/11 islandwalking, shrouded, trampling beatstick you’ve gone some way to wrapping up the game with a bow. That said, you could also say the same of Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. Does that make the inclusion of either card particularly shrewd? Obscenely fat stompers are fine as a one-of in the typical Green deck, because Green decks that care about squeezeing out fatties will take pains to include a ramping suite to accelerate their manabase. There isn’t a single card in Esper Air Assault that will get you mana any quicker than the rate with which you naturally draw land outwith the two basic landcycling cards, Traumatic Visions. This is somewhat reminiscent of the inclusion of the Ultimatums in two of the Shards of Alara decks, Cruel Ultimatum for Grixis and Titanic Ultimatum for Naya. Like those, the Inkwell Leviathan will power you to a memorable win from time to time. It will far more often sit in your hand uselessly, or simply become castable too late to affect the outcome of the game (you’re already well down the path of either winning or losing). It’s not worth the brainpower to suss out which one is marginally better or worse than the other in their respective decks- the Leviathan is a dreadful inclusion, even if it makes for some occasionally spectacular wins.
Fear of the Judgment
The noncreature support suite offered here is remarkably scant- a mere six cards- though for the Intro Pack decks of Shards of Alara’s time this was not at all unusual. These inaugural 41-card decks were the repurposed descendants of the might Theme Deck, and now were being pitched to beginners of the game rather than experienced players. That they would choose to skew so heavily towards creature combat in these early days is hardly surprising.
Inasmuch as removal goes, use it carefully- you only have two pieces of it. One of these is an Executioner’s Capsule, which adds to the deck’s synergy and virtually guarantees you an artifact in your graveyard at some point in the game once it’s out. There’s also the much slower Dehydration. Should your opponent be playing weenie creatures, however, the deck’s Rod of Ruin will be an abundant source of reusable removal, and in any event it’s a good mana sink for later in the game even if you’re just whittling down your opponent by 1 each turn.
The other package here is countermagic. A Remove Soul will take care of any creature on the way in, while the pair of Traumatic Visions are a hard counter to anything your opponent might play. The downside of the former is that its conditional, and will let all manner of threats through so long as they aren’t a creature. The downside of the latter is that it costs five mana. The good news is that the Visions have basic landcycling, and are better suited towards that purpose earlier in the game. After all, that Inkwell Leviathan isn’t going to pay for itself.
That brings us to the end of the first leg of our return to Esper. In our next piece, we’ll pit the deck against one of its peers, and see how it comes together in the heat of battle. See you then!