Last week, we got into some of the basic play patterns and concepts found in Esper Puppet, a control deck utilizing Marionette Master as its win condition. This week, I wanted to get into a little more shop talk as we talk about exactly how to tune your Puppet list to beat an expected metagame. This includes understanding basic tweaks you can make before the tournament, but also how to sideboard for specific match ups once there.
Before we get to that, however, let’s first talk about why and when you might want to modify Esper Puppet in the first place. As discussed last week, there are only about 16 core cards to the list with plenty of room for customize ability. This is important to recognize because it means you can mess with the list some and it will work with you. Oftentimes, linear strategies, or combo decks, just have too many pieces that you absolutely need in the list and cannot cut, which limits the number of free slots you can use for removal, or protection, or just cards you prefer. Esper Puppet allows a pretty wide range of strategies to be supported, although it is important for the deck to still feel cohesive when all is said and done. Last week I even asserted that Contraband Kingpin was part of the core to this deck which I think was incorrect on my part.
This is the true core of the deck. While Kingpin (or as I like to call him: Geoffrey) has some amazing synergy with the list and also plays defense well, it is hard to call card filtering an essential part of the deck. We likely cannot afford to cut Contraband Kingpin without replacing him with some sort of card advantage or selection, but that does not make Geoffrey irreplaceable himself. I bring this up because I was beginning to have concern over the number of opposing Fatal Pushes that seemed to be increasing recently as well as efforts from Mono Red that hurt the card, like Soulscar Mage and Rampaging Ferrocidon. Left unchecked, a 1/4 Lifelink could still do serious business against aggro, but it was more likely to be checked than ever before. Additionally, the need to find blue mana by turn 2 sometimes hurt our development. With that in mind, this week I decided to take a few different stabs at the deck, leaving Geoffrey on the sidelines.
To replace him, there were a couple of different ideas I wanted to try out. The first involved playing Supreme Will, which is a card that many have suggested for the deck but I was skeptical if it actually could work in a shell that taps out on its own turn so often. The second is a version which adds a fourth color in order to gain access to Vraska, Relic Seeker. Vraska creates treasures, which many people overlook, and it happens to be another main deck answer to opposing enchantments like Cast Out and Anointed Procession, which we could always use more of. While neither of these lists are necessarily better than the more stock version I posted last week, it is always important to continue trying new things in order to find out what works and how you can best adapt to the metagame.
Four Color Puppet
1 Kefnet’s Last Word
1 Bontu’s Last Reckoning
1 Vraska, Relic Seeker
1 Jace’s Defeat
1 Lost Legacy
1 Vraska’s Contempt
1 Gonti, Lord of Luxury
2 Sunscourge Champion
You will also notice a lack of Spell Swindle and Settle the Wreckage in these lists. Both cards are just being played around too heavily by players right now and the cost of leaving open four or five for nothing can be a huge blow. While both cards might be correct once again in the future, I think leaving them out for right now is the correct call.
With those out of the way, I wanted to spend the rest of my time here today discussing the general strategies for how to sideboard with your Puppet lists. I will not be doing a card by card breakdown as I think most people have their own small variations to the list, making a card by card add and subtract guide not actually apply to many other lists out there. Besides, all of my versions of the deck have had very similar sideboarding styles and strategies, so sticking with those will probably be more helpful overall.
As we discussed last week, remember that you are the control deck in nearly every match up that isn’t U/B Control or Approach and even in those matchups we only feel less like control because we are the primary player supplying threats to the board. We have a combo element to our deck and can win out of nowhere, but if you go into matches assuming the control role and playing accordingly instead of racing to a finish, you will generally have more success with the list. Let’s get into some boarding situations.
Over time, our main deck has picked up many of the extra anti-aggro cards from the sideboard. Both lists above have four Fatal Push and three Fumigate in the main deck so the number of extra sweepers and cheap removal in the board has dropped over time.
Generally speaking, for these match ups, such as Mono Red, you should be looking to reduce the hands in which you do not impact the board. Cutting down on the number of Treasure Maps, Implements, Vraska, or Spell Swindles you have is an absolute must. In there place you should be looking to increase early game interaction and to have cards against any threat that isn’t covered by interaction. Keep some Cast Outs or other generic answers to take care of opposing sideboard options and planeswalkers.
Importantly, if your main deck is empty of cards that die to Fatal Push, you can get away with changing that after board, but be weary of game three Fatal Pushes if you do.
This is the only real time where you are the player providing the threats. Cards like Hidden Stockpile change from a card that slows the game down and buys you a lot of time to now being one of your most important cards as it slips under countermagic and then keeps the servos coming. Many of your cards that act like removal against aggro or that are generally answers now become about their threat level. Tezzeret turns into a win condition. Treasure Map turns into a win condition. Even Underhanded Designs can be used to drain out an opponent.
You need to be getting rid of all of your answers to fast decks. Fatal Push, Fumigate, and Contraband Kingpin just have too low of an impact. We want our top decks to be as powerful as possible to help with the fact that our card advantage is not nearly as impressive as Approach or U/B Control. Instead, we rely on the advantage that our permanents provide over time. You want cards in your sideboard that can protect these threats as well as more threats just to increase the density of your must-counter threats.
At this point, it becomes a matter of getting something to resolve and then riding it to victory. Play around Censor and Supreme Will to the best of your abilities when playing these threats. Even though both of those counterspells cantrip and you can’t actually stop them from getting a card back, you can overload their few hard counters if you just don’t play a must-counter threat into one. If Censor never counters anything important and the same for Supreme Will, the four Disallow, the Negates, and the Gearhulks your opponent has simply will not be enough to keep pace with you. This becomes especially true when you have hand disruption and countermagic of your own to fight back.
Energy and Midrange Soup
Somewhere in the middle of the above two strategies comes all of the midrange soup that exists at the moment, with Temur Energy being the most prominent. Identifying what cards are bad against aggro, or that are bad against control, is relatively easy. You remove all of those and add good stuff. Even when you miss-board slightly when doing this, your overall game plan against control or aggro has still been bolstered and you likely have a big advantage moving into game two and three. Against midrange, instead of removing all of your Fatal Pushes or all of your Implements, you will often want to find the balance for the specific match up you are interested in. This means there is no easy shortcut to save you here and you need to develop a game plan before ever entering the match to have the best chance at success.
I will break form a bit here to go over my specific plan against Temur Energy using the Four Color Puppet list from above.
You can see that our plans actually change on the play or the draw and this is because the cards we care about change. When on the draw, one of the scariest things that Temur can do is play an unanswered Longtusk Cub. Maxing out on Fatal Push helps to prevent this. On the play, however, Doomfall answers cub just fine and we have more mana more quickly to recover with the likes of a Fumigate or Hidden Stockpile. Similarly, you can see us leave in all of our Marionette Masters on the play to have the most pressure possible while Vraska helps us to recover from obscure board positions on the draw. The specifics here don’t matter so much as the fact that we have thought this match up through and are targeting specific cards with our sideboard plan.
This makes the prep you do for a tournament extra crucial as you really cannot wing your way through sideboarding against any of the midrange decks to consistent success.
The last style of sideboarding I want to cover is a little strange but hopefully will make sense shortly. Defensively offensive with our list implies a desire to maximize our chance at a quick combo kill while maintaining access to the important threats against us. Against a deck like tokens, for example, we want to keep a maximum number of Marionette Masters and Treasure Maps around as it is essential that we eventually go over the top with life loss. We can certainly draw enough answers to problematic permanents and then win through a grindfest, but that should not be our plan going in. We look to disrupt the opponent here with a Cast Out, Duress, or Negate on some crucial piece of their synergy solely in order to buy our own synergies some time. We are still a control deck in this world, but knowing when to turn and go for the kill is vital and therefore having the ability to execute on that is just as vital.
In this situation, you will usually want to be cutting any cards that don’t have a specific purpose in the matchup, whether that be Fatal Pushes and Implements against Tokens, or whatever. Every card in your deck should be directly disrupting the opponent’s path to victory or enabling your own.
I’ll be back next week with some discussion about all of the obscure and interesting cards that are vying for slots in the list. People constantly have questions about Anointed Procession, The Scarab God, Anointed Priest, Search for Azcanta and plenty of other cards and I would like to discuss the reasons why we are not running them and whether we might choose to run them in the future. Until next week, thanks for reading!