Last Saturday, I was able to compete in a PPTQ right down the street from my house. I never travel for these things, because my weekends are either
occupied with the real world or Opens/GPs, but I was excited to unveil my Esper Control deck in an actual competitive event. I piloted it during FNM a week
before and lost in the top eight to Eldrazi Green in a close three game set. Whenever I lose to a deck that has a narrow, concentrated path to victory, I
always scheme and develop a way to defeat it. With decks like Mono-Red, I’ve used the force of Kor Firewalker, Silver Knight, Circle of Protection: Red, or
other hate cards in their respective Standard formats to lock out burn players with ease. When battling against the control mirror, I made sure never to
leave home without Luminarch Ascensions, a full set of Bloodghasts, or an unreasonably high number of planeswalkers to bring home the trophy. WotC has
usually been pretty good about printing hate cards that help control flourish, but that pattern came to a crashing halt a few years ago. These days we have
to get creative in our sideboard against these one-dimensional decks.
After losing to Eldrazi Green, I hit the tank, dusted off a few Infinite Obliterations and gave them a shot. It turns out they can’t actually beat that
card once you remove Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger from their possession. The rest of their threats, if you can even call them that, are easily removed by
everything else in our deck. Who would have thought that Fathom Feeder would be the best card against the green control killer? They think they are very
clever with Gaea’s Revenge; however, our two mana answer is much more intimidating. The Eldrazi Green deck, for all of its ramp and wonder, is still fairly
slow. Fathom Feeder just hangs out, draws some cards if they cast harmless ramp spells, and provides us answers for the rest of their threats.
These green ramp decks have evolved some since the first week. I’ve seen white splashes mostly, but now many also toss a few red sources in to gain access
to Dragonlord Atarka. The more colors they add, the more diverse their threats will be, but that doesn’t make them any scarier. Ulamog, the Ceaseless
Hunter is the only real threat against us. His ability to exile two cards even when countered is crippling. With Ulamog and Gaea’s Revenge under control,
it’s just about finishing the game with smart decisions. This wasn’t possible before Infinite Obliteration. I could win a game here or there through
Despise or getting lucky, but you all know I don’t like to let luck dictate the outcome of any match I play. There are bullets out there for us to use, and
it’s just about finding the right ones to answer the metagame appropriately.
I stacked the sideboard with the perfect answers for the toughest matches and ran into battle Saturday morning. In the Swiss, I battled against Esper
Dragons, Jeskai Aggro, Abzan Midrange, and multiple Atarka Red decks. I had one loss against Mono-Red, but only one. Through testing and this tournament,
I’m actually surprised on how well the deck performs against Atarka Red after sideboard. I often times lose game 1 as expected, but put a real hurt on them
during the sideboarded games. The list provided is close to what I played in the PPTQ, but with a few alterations after throwing the deck together online
and increasing my games played number tenfold. Atarka Red has to deal with three Arashin Cleric and four Ojutai’s Command after sideboard. It is simply too
much lifegain for them to compete with combined with the massive amount of removal in my arsenal. It feels good to be favored against red decks finally;
however, the cost is high. The two Ultimate Price, three Arashin Cleric, fourth Ojutai’s Command, and the one Tasigur, the Golden Fang are all included in
the sideboard for that specific matchup. There are other matchups I sideboard in the Ultimate Prices and Ojutai’s Command, but most of the time, they serve
the role of aggro killer.
The other decks I played against were dispatched by the brute power of Dig Through Time, Languish, and the planeswalker crew that made the final cut. Ob
Nixilis Reignited was an all-star, Narset Transcendent finally shines in a format that has slowed down significantly, and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar has been
a consistently solid win condition. Sorin, Solemn Visitor gave me a few wins with a big lifelink attack to put me out of range of an aggressive player
getting close to victory. Each planeswalker serves a specific purpose and comes out fairly early in the game to do so.
The best matchup for Esper Control is clearly Abzan of any variety. We are the one deck in the format that is not intimated by Siege Rhino. When it
resolves, we aren’t scared; and when we are on the play, we can cast Ojutai’s Command to stop it. Abzan in all forms can only summon one threat a turn,
which has been the control player’s dream since the archetype came to be. I defeated one Abzan spellslinger in the swiss rounds and another in the
quarterfinals. The latter splashed for Crackling Doom, but played the same morph/threat package as the other Abzan competitors. The top 8 had four Atarka
Red decks in it, and even though my matchup is good, I’d prefer to play against the Abzan, Eldrazi Green, and Four-Color Midrange decks instead. Luck just
happened to be on my side because I defeated Abzan in the quarterfinals, Four-Color Midrange in the semis, and proceeded to take down the tournament by
defeating Eldrazi Green in the finals.
With the help of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and Narset Transcendent, my Eldrazi Green opponent found most of his win conditions in the exile pile. Infinite
Obliteration also decimated my Esper Dragons opponent in the swiss for a little added splash damage. I was very happy with the performance of Esper Control
and immediately got to writing this article to give you guys the most up-to-date list, a quick metagame breakdown from the Open Series, live play and
online testing, as well as a list of the cards that performed above and beyond for me so far.
Metagame and Card Analysis
The local metagame always differs from the regional, national, or world ones; however, defeating red while having game against the rest is a universal
requirement. I thought the Eldrazi Green phenomena was a local one, but I was quickly proven wrong on MTGO as I battled it over and over since putting
Esper Control together. Esper Control has evolved since my initial article on it quite a bit and I now believe it’s optimized for any metagame. I never
build control decks that are streamlined to beat specific decks, but instead go for the well-oiled machine strategy. Matthias Hunt said it best while
commentating on one of my matches when analyzing a hand I kept. He said that it was a keeper, but all of Shaheen’s hands are neither good nor bad. He went
on to describe the medium power leveled nature of the cards I chose, but he also praised the fact that I could win against any matchup by sacrificing the
desire to fully optimize.
Control is not flashy. I have heard endless complaints about Ruinous Path and how terrible it is. We have to be careful not to allow powerful cards of the
past to dictate cards of the present. I compared the two cards, Hero’s Downfall and Ruinous Path, when they were initially spoiled, but made it clear that
we will have to use this sorcery speed removal spell from here on out. I was surprised how little I miss the instant speed removal. It is definitely worse,
I won’t argue that, but the amount of times I’ve killed a creature, summoned a 4/4, and killed a planeswalker is more than just a few. The awaken ability
on both Scatter to the Winds and Ruinous Path have been pretty nice, and with a little less scry and more sorcery, we are still surviving. The fact is our
mana is perfect and the lands enter the battlefield untapped more often than not. The mana situation makes up for the clunky nature of the spells we use
and allows us to control the flow of the game that much easier.
You can never account for all of the decks out there, but luckily, each deck I bring to you guys packs enough generic answers to never leave you hanging.
Here are the decks that I’ve played against at least five times through online or live play:
Good Matchups – 60%-90%
These decks have been easy for this old Esper mage to defeat. Decks that can’t produce multiple threats a turn, or can’t defend their spell with
countermagic fall into the good matchup category. I’ve historically done well in the control mirror thanks to thousands of years of experience, a little
luck, or both. BBD will have you believe that I was lucky to defeat him in the Esper Control mirror back at the Vegas Invitational top 8 years ago, but
trust me, the masterful strategy and outplaying that occurred was nothing out of the norm. Part of my edge comes from having a sideboard with just enough
cards to bring in, but not so many that I have to remove necessary answers. The control mirror is also decided heavily on winning the first battle. These
days it’s about being smart with win conditions and protecting the most valuable assets. In this deck, defending Narset Transcendent is the easiest path to
victory. This is the reason a second one is included in the sideboard. With Hero’s Downfall gone, people are packing less planeswalker hate than ever
before. This is very good for us and very bad for our opponents.
The other decks that fall victim to Esper Control’s icy grip are various Siege Rhino decks and poor Eldrazi strategies because of Infinite Obliteration.
The one warning I want to give you guys is don’t bring Infinite Obliteration in against anything that has a diverse set of win conditions. It is only meant
for Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, Deathmist Raptor, and Dragonlord Ojutai. I still sometimes only sideboard in one or zero against Deathmist Raptor,
because of how powerful Utter End has been for me with recast or rebound capabilities. Even Planar Outburst and Languish is plenty to keep the morph
creatures in check, but if you find yourself struggling to reoccurring Raptors, bring them in. Stay away from the trap of using it as a getcha card, taking
all of your opponents Siege Rhinos out of their deck.
Medium Matchups – 45-59%
Jeskai Aggro / Jeskai Black Aggro
Here come the aggro decks. Aggro will always be in the medium matchups or lower category, but luckily for us, we have game against them this time around.
Our lands enter the battlefield untapped, the lifegain is decent, and the sweeper costs four again. Control may be on the decline in power level, but it’s
far from dead. Esper Dragons lands in this category because of how powerful Silumgar’s Scorn with Duress is against us. I still think it’s on the 50%+
side, but it requires some ingenuity and trickery to resolve Infinite Obliteration after sideboard or defend Narset Transcendent. The match, as well as
many others, may come down to Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and who can keep him alive. Looting dead cards away and recasting the good ones can be a real problem
for the player on the other side. This is another reason I’ve added a Murderous Cut to the maindeck in order to deal with him early on. Jeskai falls into
this category simply because of Mantis Rider game 1 and the counter magic they bring in game 2. It still feels pretty winnable at all points, but they can
surprise you with bursts of damage backed by blue spells if you let your guard down.
Bad Matchups 10%-44%
So far I haven’t run into a matchup in this current Standard that is considered a bad matchup percentage-wise. This isn’t to say there is a no bad matchup
for Esper Control out there, just that I haven’t played against anything hopeless yet. When the Temples were used, Mono-Red would easily fall in this
category. G/R decks in the last Standard also were bad matchups, with Xenagos, the Reveler tormenting us in the earlygame. Even cards like Elvish Mystic
produced starts that were just too hard to keep up with, and in those situations, I found myself on the losing end often. There definitely is a bad matchup
out there somewhere, but at this time, I’m not afraid of any of the decks that I’ve encountered or read about.
I’m thankful to WotC for creating just enough control cards to keep the archetype alive. When a new format begins, it is control’s time to shine. Recent
Open Series and IQ results show a resurgence of Esper Dragons. I’ve said on multiple occasions that Esper Dragons and Esper Control are both very powerful.
One is more linear and gets free wins, but at the same time it is susceptible to powerful hatecards like Crackling Doom. Esper Dragons packs punch and
closes games out quicker, but Esper Control can overcome any card in the current Standard and win. Either road will lead you to victory. I tend to side
with the team that can beat anything, regardless of the amount of work I have to put in to reach that accomplishment.