Control Is Not Dead: Esper Control

It appears control is not as dead as Brad had thought; he’s found an Esper Control deck that can actually hang with the big boys in Standard.

It is that time again. The time where I have to bite the bullet and say that I was wrong. Not completely wrong, but enough to have to talk about it. The person who corrected me? Well that would be you guys. Control is not dead. In fact it is very alive.

There was an uproar in the comments of my article last week about how control is not dead. Most of it was just control players arguing for the sake of arguing, but one gem of a deck came out when the dust settled. This would be a new take on Esper Control.

This decklist showed up in my comments and was exactly what I was trying to build a few weeks ago. I loved Gerry’s 4cc deck but wanted to make it W/U/B. However I didn’t like Think Twice so instantly abandoned the idea and continued crushing people with U/W Humans in the Gold Queues.

I gave this list a shot, though, since people said it was good, and I liked the look of it. I was shocked by how good it was in the format! My first three matches were against Illusions, which I smashed all three times. It was good enough for me if it passed the Illusions test as a control deck. Let’s talk about the deck!

There are a ton of similarities between this deck and Gerry’s 4cc. This deck is trying to abuse Sun Titan and the many great spells that work well with it. This deck does not do it as well as 4cc, since Desperate Ravings help fuel the white beast, but that isn’t the biggest issue. The mana is much tighter, which makes it a fine trade.

Gut Shot is amazing against Illusions, but most of the other decks in the format have become more resilient to the one-damage spell. This makes Doom Blade slightly better right now even against the aggressive decks. It kills any Titan, Consecrated Sphinx, and pretty much any creature in the format. It does cost mana all the time, which makes it a bit slower—my first concern when facing Illusions. It didn’t seem to matter all that much.

This deck is very good against the other control decks. White Sun’s Zenith and its blue counterpart are very important for winning games. These spells are very powerful, and if the opponent doesn’t, or cannot, respect them, they win games. I like having flexible threats, and these spells do the job. I would try to find room for a Karn Liberated if you think your metagame is filled with control decks with an edge in the control matchup.

The control matchups are just like any other. There really isn’t much to say about them. Mana is very important; don’t flashback Think Twice in sideboarded games if you have seven cards in hand and lands to play. Also do not flashback Forbidden Alchemy into Mana Leaks late in the game unless you have a reason to do so. Just don’t give up value for free. The first Sun Titan does not win the game either. Do not think you need to bend over backwards to slam him on the table. Easy.

I don’t really like the Humans matchup, but like I told you last week, Humans is difficult for control decks to beat. There is no real cocktail to beat them, so just do your best.

There is one matchup that I think deserves a very long primer. Illusions has always been a deck people have had trouble with, but I don’t see it. I always beat Illusions when I was playing various control decks and just could not understand the issue. The percentages showed that that the deck had a good matchup against control, but not against me. That makes me feel that I may be doing a few things differently than most. Ready for a long matchup primer?

Illusions matchup!

This is by far the biggest test for any control deck in the format, which makes it important to spend some time talking about it. Illusions is very aggressive at all times, which makes it a control deck’s nightmare. Not only do you need to have spells to deal with the matchup, but play skill is very important. There are no formulas for a control deck that make it an insane matchup. You just need to know what role to play at all times.

This matchup plays out much differently pre-board than post-board. I am not going to lie; this is a bad matchup in game one. Most of your spells do not do anything, and the ones that do take a while to get online.

The way I play game one is to conserve my life total early. Don’t play Think Twice or Pristine Talisman; just kill their creatures with whatever you have. Doom Blade that Bear! Oblivion Ring that Delver of Secrets! Just don’t let them get any early pressure. You will have time to play those spells later if you live long enough.

Pristine Talisman is a trap on turn three over a removal spell. It seems like it does a ton of things for you if you get it down. It stems bleeding, draws out countermagic, and gets you above the Mana Leak threshold. Seems like a decent turn-three play over a removal spell but never is. They can also ignore it and bash you for four while countering the actual reactive spell in your hand.

Their Mana Leaks are very dangerous because of Snapcaster Mage. You are in trouble whenever they have this combo with four lands. You simply don’t have time to toy with them because you’ll lose to that combination. Jam spells out there early and hope they can’t counter two of them.

Sideboarded games are much different and better.

-3 Mana Leak
-2 Negate
-1 Dissipate
-1 White Sun’s Zenith
-4 Think Twice

+2 Nihil Spellbomb
+2 Ratchet Bomb
+4 Timely Reinforcements
+1 Phantasmal Image
+1 Snapcaster Mage
+1 Day of Judgment

The version I am currently playing is one card different from what was posted in my article. I am actually playing -1 Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite +1 Timely Reinforcements in the sideboard.

The threats you worry about after sideboard are very different now. The biggest threat is the situation where you run out of things to do while your opponent has a hand full of spells. They will have a ton of counterspells that will be able to control the speed of the game. That is why you do not try to play a game of tempo. You just want to continue to preserve your life total and control the board.

Some players like to keep the Negates in to fight some wars, but I feel this is a mistake. I don’t want to fight in a war I cannot win. I can win by having bigger threats in the late stages of the game.

I tend to spend more resources on controlling the board state than most players I watch. This tends to do multiple good things for you. The first thing is that they will have to have a draw with multiple creatures. This means they have fewer counterspells, and you’ll be able to sneak a threat down earlier than projected.

When they do run out of things to do, you put Nihil Spellbomb to work. This card does so many things in this matchup. The most important of them is to control Snapcaster Mage. The instant-speed wizard will be reduced to a weak Ambush Viper that gives you an actual upside. I cannot tell you how many times my opponent drops a Snapcaster Mage into play at the end of turn just to put some pressure on me, only to find me casting Phantasmal Image to buy back a Timely Reinforcements.

Nihil Spellbomb also makes their Dissipates a one-time spell. This is important when trying to stick a threat in the late stages of a game. It is very important to wait for a Spellbomb before attempting a Sun Titan even if you can pay for one or two Mana Leaks when there is a Dissipate in the yard. There is no rush to win a game if they have no pressure.

Nihil Spellbomb can also be a great way to deal with a Moorland Haunt, but only in specific situations. They have to have drawn their first one late, since any other situation lets them bring back the one guy in the yard. Do not treat Nihil Spellbomb as an Instill Infection unless you really have to. It is so much better than that.

The last reason Nihil Spellbomb is important is to protect yourself from an opponent’s Phantasmal Images. Your goal in this matchup is to get to a point where you are both playing draw-go. This is easier than you would think, since they are not very threat dense as a whole. This means that after a few turns of this, they could easily have dead Mana Leaks, Vapor Snares, and Phantasmal Images in their hand if it isn’t filled with Dissipates and Snapcaster Mages to buy them back. Slamming a Sun Titan that resolves can be very scary if multiple Phantasmal Images (counting ones in the yard) are involved.

So the goal is to get to a situation where you have time to draw a Nihil Spellbomb. How do we get there? The deck is filled with Doom Blades, Timely Reinforcements, Ratchet Bombs, Day of Judgments, Phantasmal Images, and Oblivion Rings. The main goal with all of the spells is to use them as one-for-ones unless a situation arises where you get more value. They do not have any reach outside of their tempo, which they have a lot of. There is no reason to two-for-one them when they do not have enough threats to need it. Moorland Haunt is the only card that gives them the reach, and you’ll have answers and time to draw into them when using the other cards properly.

The scariest draw they have is Lord of the Unreal into multiple Phantasmal Images. Timely Reinforcements backed up by a removal spell can solve this if they don’t have anything else, but do not bank on this. If your opponent is running a 3/3 Phantasmal Image into your tokens, I would give him the respect and just chump block. I want more time in this situation rather than the potential trade.

Timely Reinforcements also helps against any of the ground creatures. That is why I want to make sure my Ratchet Bombs can kill anything in the air when I need it to. This means I will never put charge counters on an unused Bomb. Do not get cute and keep it in hand intending to sneak up on them. Rarely will they Delver, flip it, and drop a Phantasmal Image to let you blow them out. Get it out there in case you need to kill a Lord of the Unreal or the rare but scary Geist of Saint Traft.

It is also important to protect and value Pristine Talismans when you can in sideboarded games. These games go much longer, and the life gain can come in handy in the late game. You do not have to worry as much about a single threat or a Moorland Haunt as much. They will not want to invest all of their guys in the yard if you have a Ratchet Bomb but will have to if they are gaining no ground.

Don’t try to get cute with the Snapcaster Mage. He has the same role as any card in your deck. Get value out of him when you can, but if the situation arises, slam him on the board and trade during combat. Having just one in the sideboard may make you want to give him more purpose than he actually needs. He is just another card in your deck, and view him like that.

In short, just play smart and not cute. Patience is the most important thing to have in this matchup unless there is a creature on their side of the board… just kill it!

I am very sorry that I told you guys control was dead. It’s not like I was trying to pull the wool over your eyes. I just did not know this deck existed. It is a very powerful deck right now that has a better matchup than any of the other control decks out there. We don’t have too much time left before the new set shakes things up, so I would give this decklist a whirl at FNM before it is too late.

Brad Nelson