I’ll skip the introduction as I am sure many of you know me and if not, that is completely fine as today I would rather the focus be on a pretty sweet new Standard deck. Zac Elsik mentioned the list a few days ago, but I wanted to expand on it a bit.

Early on in the format, before Ixalan came out even, I recognized that Marionette Master was going to be receiving a lot of support. The card already offered huge incentives with clues and God-Pharaoh’s Gift in the past, but none of those routes ever quite worked out. With treasure entering the mix, a free sacrifice and mana generation to boot gave the Puppet Master a lot more tools to work with.

I originally was set on a Grixis build of the deck as I was trying to utilize cards like Pia Nalaar and Unlicensed Disintegration, but the metagame was having none of my antics. Energy decks of all varieties kept crushing me and a decent Mono Red matchup was not worth boasting about when you can’t beat the most played strategy in the format. My conclusion was that I could not compete with these decks while playing by their rules.

These decks absolutely dominate the midgame as they put you on your back foot early and then reign threats down on you that all demand attention. You quickly find yourself out of resources, even if you happen to be safe for the moment. Every turn risks them landing a Chandra, Torch of Defiance, or Bristling Hydra, or The Scarab God and then all of your defensive work will have been for naught. So I knew I needed to speed things up dramatically or to slow them down dramatically and the reality is that six-drop just doesn’t work all too well in aggro most of the time.

In slowing things down, Grixis no longer made much sense. Pia Nalaar, Unlicensed Disintegration, and Captain Lannery Storm aren’t exactly known for taking things slow. Esper, on other hand, seemed to have the right tools to make this work. Fumigate and Cast Out are both amazing control cards at the moment but perhaps most important of all; we gain access to Hidden Stockpile.

Hidden Stockpile allows us to play the game at our own pace, slowing down the aggressive opponent, or pressuring the control opponent, while also being a natural sacrifice outlet for Marionette Master when the time comes. We already want to play Renegade Map and Tezzeret which both do an excellent job of triggering revolt, so Stockpile just sort of glues all of our existing synergies together as one.

We will go over an extensive sideboarding guide for each matchup in a future article, but for now I wanted to focus primarily on what we are doing in the main deck, as it plays a little differently than most.

At our core, we are a control deck. We have a combo finish that is certainly the most marquee element of the deck, but we are not dedicating the other 71 cards toward racing out Marionette Master and winning as fast as possible. Instead, we look to answer most of our opponent’s threats for the first five or six turns while we simulatenously begin developing our engine. This includes Treasure Map, Contraband Kingpin, Hidden Stockpile, and Tezzeret the Schemer but it is not necessary to have all of these in play. Each of these cards has synergy with the others so assembling any two of them will get you going and should provide you with enough scrys to find the next piece as you continue to build.

In fact, it is pretty safe to say that we scry more than any other deck in Standard, and possible just any other deck ever. All twelve of our cards that scry do so repeatedly and they also begin to stack on top of one another. When you activate a Treasure Map for the third time with a Contraband Kingpin out, you end up scrying four times. When you sacrifice a Servo to Hidden Stockpile, the resulting 1/1 at the end of turn will also trigger your Kingpin for twice the scrying power. This amounts to a high level of card selection, even if our raw card advantage is not as high as most traditional control decks. When we need a sweeper, we can scry aggressively in search of one while hopefully buying a little extra time along the way.

This heavy scrying allows us to get a lot more mileage out of one-ofs and two-ofs and also makes it pretty easy to find a Marionette Master for the combo when the time is right. For this reason, you could realistically go down to three copies of the Puppet Master, as we often do after board, but I think the utility of its token making and the usefulness in drawing multiples outweighs the occasions where one or two get stuck in your hand. When scrying in big chunks, it is important to note your instant speed cantrips, namely Cast Out, Fetid Pools, and Implement of Examination. If you have a pile of say four scrys and you immediately find a card on top you want, it is usually better to draw that card with a cantrip and then to allow the remaining three scrys to resolve so that they do not go to waste! We use this interaction pretty often as a means of cheating our card advantage a bit.

Returning to that core engine, it is important to always keep your end game in mind. This means that cards like Renegade Map (or even Evolving Wilds) should be left on the table as long as they can either to enable revolt or to be an extra artifact for Master. This also means you should constantly be doing Stockpile math. Unlike treasures, activating Stockpile requires a mana out of you. Normally this is not an issue as your treasures provide you with mana that you rarely need to spend on anything. But it does mean you will want to keep your artifact count and available mana in mind as Master is a six-cost play, so things can get tight if you are a bit too sloppy.

As for that end game combo finish, let’s quickly go over the most common scenarios for how we win. 1) The first simply involves us having 5 treasures or other sacrificial artifacts in play and then casting Marionette Master, putting three +1/+1 on it and shooting the opponent for 20. If the opponent is at a higher life total, you can either have more artifacts to sacrifice in play or have a Tezzeret. In this scenario, Tezzeret can use his -2 ability on Master when their are five artifacts in play, and you can sacrifice the first number until you reach five. At this point, Marionette Master turns into a 9/1 and allows that traditional 20 loss of life to turn into 45.  I have killed opponents from well over 100 life before, although the token lists can push you to your limits if they have an Anointed Priest active for too many turns.

Tokens are actually a deck worth noting as all of the various tokens lists have begun picking up popularity in recent weeks and were not accounted for when originally building Esper Puppet. We have adapted a little with our sideboard, but if decks like Blue/Black Control and Approach are in decline while tokens is on the rise, it may be worth some main deck changes to adapt. For example, while Implement of Examination is a prime card against slower control match ups, we often board it out against the more aggressive decks. The card is certainly not dead against tokens, but could possibly be swapped for something more impactful, such as an additional Cast Out. Similarly, we have two copies of Field of Ruin in our deck at this point which is primarily aimed at the Search for Azcanta control decks, but it is possible we should be looking at Scavenger Grounds in the same slot. This would improve our matchup against the various God-Pharaoh’s Gift decks as well as giving us ways to interact with the eternalize and embalm cards out of the token opponents. Of course, Field of Ruin does take out Adanto, the First Fort, so it does have some value in the matchup.

The core engine of Esper Puppet as well as the win condition of Marionette Master all seem like excellent centerpieces to continue to be molded around and adapted to the existing meta. This is why I mention the potential edits above. We have about 24 core cards that don’t want to go anywhere, but we can theoretically rearrange the rest to stay on top of what everyone else is doing. Even a card like Spell Swindle, which leads to more out-of-nowhere wins than any other card, should not be seen as sacred to the list, as long as we keep our treasure makers in high enough quantity in its absence.

I’ll be back soon with another article going over the specific sideboard plan as well as bringing updates to keep the shell relevant and ahead of the metagame. Until next time, thanks for reading!