Dissecting Esper

Mark takes Esper Control apart to find what gives it the just-right balance of cards to play its game-plan optimally. Which card drawing spells and in what quantity, what removal spells and counters, and how many of each are the right balance?

Over the course of the last week, I felt a lot like a used-car salesman. I spoke to several friends who were going to attend the Indianapolis Invitational this weekend, and each of them asked me what I would play if I went.

“Do you like killing lots of things?”


“How about drawing piles of cards? You enjoy that?”

I do…

“Planeswalkers? What are your feelings on planeswalkers?”

They are pretty good?

Pretty good? Just pretty good? Well boy howdy you better change that tune, cuz’ you’re over there Whistlin’ Dixie while I’m trying to give you Freebird.”

I’m listening…

“Esper Control through and through. This deck has it all!

Running out of gas? BAM! Sphinx’s Revelation for [roll 2d6] and watch your opponent slink in their seat. You like disruption? How about you’re a control deck that can play a Thoughtseize better than your Mono Black Devotion opponent. Speaking of the devil, when they’re getting all cute with Pack Rat, you have Supreme Verdict to take care of that pesky little varmint, and that goes double for the adorable little creature decks out there like Mono Blue Devotion. Nice Master of Waves, amirite?

But wait- there’s more. You ever dropped a Blood Baron of Vizkopa on someone’s head? Time and time again I’ve called that sucker The Truth, because there ain’t no way your opponent can handle it.

“Oh no, Mark,” you’re yelling at me, “they played a plansewalker. My Supreme Verdict can’t kill that!”

“Stop your whining,” I tell you emphatically- “we’ve got answers like Waldo has hiding places. Hero’s Downfall is a great way to put Baby in the corner, and if that doesn’t work, you send that dang thing to the Principal’s Office with Detention Sphere.”

All of those answers are assuming you chose not to counter the spell, you know, because you sometimes you gotta treat a spell like a stain and Dissolve it.

Your sideboard is like a freaking toolbox, and you might as well consider it a Home Depot. We’ve got extra Blood Barons for days. Gainsay to shut the blue mages up, more removal spells like Doom Blade to hush up those uppity creatures, and Jace, Memory Adept to get medieval on your opponent’s behind. Pithing Needle is a pretty potent catchall, and last but not least the anti-spell all-star, Negate.

Well then, sonny, what’s it gonna take to get you behind this deck’s wheel?”

Without a shadow of a doubt, I was pleased as punch to tell everyone I knew that Esper Control is the best deck in the format, and I thought in the hands of a competent pilot it would give the best chance for Top 8’ing the event(s) throughout the weekend.

First, let’s look at a few versions of Esper that did exceedingly well this weekend. I’ll begin with William Jensen list, since I believe it’s the gold standard of lists.

Huey’s play of this deck, while evident on camera, was masterful. While watching him I felt myself learning nuances I haven’t thought of yet.

“It was when I thought I knew everything that I realized I knew nothing.”

Upon viewing his Round 14 match against Joe Lossett, who is a very talented player in his own right, I was watching a master at work. From his turn-five Sphinx’s Revelation to the way he navigated a maze of counterspells to land his haymakers, I was floored to see him dispatch a great magician in under twenty minutes… in an Esper mirror match. It was at the end of their game that I realized Joe was playing it like a mirror match whereas Huey was doing everything he could to win a battle quickly and effectively, damning his late-game efficiency for a fast and impressive win.

His list is very tight. One card that constantly gets flack is Divination, but in a world full of Thoughtseize it’s a perfect way to refuel your hand, guarantee land drops are made, and draw into more gas. It’s safe to say Esper is going to be around for a bit, so playing a card that helps your overall quality seems perfect.

One thing I absolutely love about Huey’s list is the ability to play up to four copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa, who might be the most difficult card in this Standard format to deal with. There were many, many matches this weekend where it looked like Mono Black Devotion couldn’t lose until their Esper opponent dropped a Blood Baron into play and the pendulum swung the other direction. It’s that good.

Next we have Standard Open winner Harry Corvese list:

Leaning more heavily on Elspeth, Sun’s Champion than Blood Baron, Harry’s list has a few spicy numbers that I like a lot. Merciless Eviction, aka the Christian Calcano Special, is a fantastic way to deal with the G/R Devotion decks out there by allowing you to either exile their planeswalkers or creatures, giving you a pick-your-own-poison version of Planar Cleansing.

His choice to play one copy of Syncopate might seem off, but having that extra counter in the main gives a little extra help in the mirror match as well as taking care of some early spells if you’re on the play.

Harry’s choice to play all the Doom Blades in his board shows me a man who is dedicated to not giving away wins to Mono Red, which should soon see a resurgence if Esper continues doing well. His lack of Jace, Memory Adept might be a detriment going forward, but clearly it wasn’t enough to stop him from taking down an exceptionally huge Open.

Both of these lists have their merits and things I like about them, but what does that mean to you?

Why should you play Esper?

If my pitch earlier wasn’t good enough for you, allow me to give you a dissection of this powerful strategy, card by card. For those of you who are on the fence about Esper or don’t really know much about it, let me try to sway you.

First, let’s start off with the basics.


A typical Esper deck sports 27 lands, most of which are what you’d expect: sets of Watery Grave, Hallowed Fountain, and Godless Shrines. Where this deck gains a lot of its power and flexibility is from being able to play eight scry lands- Temple of Silence and Temple of Deceit. These lands give you a fantastic dimension of allowing you to keep land-light(er) hands with powerful spells and still hit your land drops.


Obviously being a control deck, the bread and butter of Esper are in the fact that it gets to play some of the most powerful spells in the entire format.

We can put these into several subcategories: Removal, Card Advantage, and Disruption.


The removal suite of Esper is among the most pertinent reasons to play it, giving you unprecedented versatility. The most basic of your removal spells is Doom Blade, which will let you kill any non-black creature. In a format filled with G/R and Mono Blue Devotion, this card will act as a way to kill almost any monster they put on the field, lowering their devotion and keeping your life safe. Azorius Charm functions in a similar way, letting you put an attacking creature on top of their owner’s library in the early game. This gives you tempo and, in some cases, can act as a Time Walk against certain decks, giving you time to play more lands and set up with greater ease.

Moving up the chain is Hero’s Downfall, a card that has become essentially the best removal spell in Standard since it can also hit planeswalkers. Control decks from the previous format were almost obsolete because their limited capacity to deal with a resolved planeswalker, but now Hero’s Downfall fixes that problem. The added bonus is that it’s an instant, so killing a problematic walker at the end of your opponent’s turn can allow you to untap safely and land your haymakers. One of the very important things that it can do is hit any creature, and when Nightveil Specter is among the most-played creatures in Standard, being able to kill it is extremely vital.

Next is Detention Sphere, which does some very necessary things in Esper. Underworld Connections and various gods like Thassa or Erebos can be disastrous for you if they are permitted to stick around. D-Sphere takes those indestructible gods and exiles them, giving you some breathing room. Exiling an Underworld Connections can ensure that your Mono Black opponent doesn’t get a chance to out-card advantage you, which will let you continue to bury them under your superior spells. Hitting creatures is another function for Detention Sphere, and it has the added bonus of being able to nail multiple copies.

Finally, you have your mass removal in Supreme Verdict and sometimes Merciless Eviction. These spells are linchpins in control decks and allow them to halt the board and prevent you from being swarmed by creatures. The power level of creatures has increased dramatically, but these spells are the great equalizer.

Card Advantage

An important stabilizer in Esper is Azorious Charm, which acts as either a removal spell or a cycler, replacing itself with a fresh card if that suits your needs instead. It’s almost never a dead draw, because for a mere two mana it will let you dig a little deeper for whatever you may need, be it land, removal, or a planeswalker.

Next there is Divination. As you saw earlier in Harry’s list, he chose not to run it, but I feel a card of this nature is almost necessary to make sure that you hit all your land drops and have a flow of powerful spells. While it is only really +1 card worth’s of advantage, the importance of this card comes from helping your consistency.

Jace, Architect of Thought is another excellent source of card advantage. His mini-Fact or Fiction -2 loyalty ability will dig you three cards deep and give you the best of what you need to improve your hand. The best activations, however, are when you already have what you need and your opponent splits the piles in a way that is “best” for them, giving you two cards when you already have the answer in your hand.

Finally, there is the most brutal of card advantage engines – Sphinx’s Revelation. Chaining Revelations is a backbreaking way to defeat your opponent, because you’re essentially burying them beneath a mountain of card quality and answers. The lifegain buys you tons of time to deploy those cards, and eventually they won’t be able to keep up with the amount of spells you can throw at them. I agree with both lists sporting four copies of it, because like Pat Chapin said, “If you’re going to play three copies of Sphinx’s Revelation, you might as well play zero.” Chaining them is that powerful.


One thing that sets Esper apart from other control decks is the ability to play Thoughtseize. Without a doubt, Thoughtseize is the most important card in the format, and decks that can’t beat it play it. Thoughtsieze not only gives you perfect information, it lets you take the card that is most difficult for your deck to deal with. Esper makes excellent use of it by making sure problematic cards simply never get cast in the first place.

Counterspells are another great form of disrupting your opponent. Dissolve is deceptively powerful, because the scry 1 can improve your draw step while making sure an annoying spell doesn’t resolve. In Harry’s list we also see Syncopate, which has an excellent early-game prowess.


There are a very limited amount of creatures a deck like this will run, but they have more impact than just about any other creature in the format.

As we saw earlier, Blood Baron of Vizkopa is so good that he warranted inclusion in the main in William Jensen Invitational list. Mono Black Devotion is one of the most-played decks out there, and a resolved Blood Baron does a huge job in closing them out if he sticks around for a few turns.

Aetherling, though, is the blue finisher of choice. This card is the nightmare of any opponent if it resolves and is extremely difficult to beat once it gets rolling. You even saw people at the Standard Open boarding in cards like Debtor’s Pulpit to handle it or multiple Pithing Needles to halt the nearly-invincible shapeshifter. Most games of the mirror match revolve around this creature, as once it hits the field there is almost no way to answer it. Managing it is also very important, since keeping it alive is often the best route to victory.


Esper is one of the most prominent decks in Standard at utilizing planeswalkers, and it luckily gets to play two of the most powerful ones around. Jace, Architect of Thought was one of the defining cards of the Block Constructed format, and it has ported over nicely to this environment. Jace can serve as a win condition all on his own with the ultimate finding whatever finisher you and your opponent are each playing, cheating in an Aetherling or Elspeth plus the best of whatever your opponent’s got going, and protects both itself and your life total with the +1 ability. The -2 loyalty ability, if managed properly, can absolutely dominate your opponent with repeated access to pure card advantage and can help you search for an answer that you need.

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, is one of the most incredible planeswalkers printed recently. The +1 loyalty ability will flood the board with three 1/1 soldiers, and give you plenty of blockers or attackers depending on what you need. If you see yourself facing down a horde of large creatures, Elspeth can spend three loyalty to kill everything with a power of four or greater. Lastly, the Emblem gained by that ultimate all but kills your opponent, given that you should have plenty of creatures from the +1 ability. Once they all have +2/+2 and flying, winning should be a breeze.

The Sideboard

One of the best parts about Esper is how customizable your sideboard can be. You can see very plainly the deviations between Jensen’s and Corvese’s boards, but both of them work in the context of what each of them are trying to do.

Cards you should be considering include:

And those are just the typical ones, meaning you’re free to innovate how you see fit.

If I were to put together Esper for an event tomorrow, I’d play the following list:

I feel like this kind of build gives you a great deal of versatility going forward. I’ve been playing this list online to some pretty excellent results. Pilfered Plans has been very good, considering that it takes the place of Divination, but gives you the additional upside of a bit of milling. It might not sound like a lot, but with the extreme power level of some cards in Standard, milling two to four cards in a game can be a big deal if you hit relevant threats. One example was a mirror match I just played where the mill two hit a Jace, Architect of Thought and a Sphinx’s Revelation. My opponent frowned and that’s a good thing. When your card draw spell lines up against a good Scry off of a Temple or an opponent’s spell, the extra black mana to clear the top of their deck can be a major benefit

I hope you had fun this week learning some of the ins and outs of Esper, which is my current favorite deck in Standard.

It was awesome seeing it do so well this weekend, and also a huge relief that the mirror matches on camera weren’t even remotely boring (…to me, anyway.)

If my used-car salesman pitch didn’t seal the deal for you, maybe you should just try picking up the deck and battling with it. It’s jolly good fun.

Catch ya on the flip-


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