This article is long overdue my friends. I’ve decided to give you guys the "Shaheen Soorani Guide to Esper Control." I enjoy spreading the Esper gospel, moving from town to town converting those who wish to slam planeswalkers and remove troublesome creatures from the battlefield. Giving the Esper knowledge to you all is only step one, and the next move is mastering the sideboard against the biggest foes of the metagame. There are a few tips and tricks that I have discussed in great detail, but proper sideboarding is one of the biggest aspects of the game and must be mastered in order to maximize win percentage. After you understand how I sideboard and prepare for my second and third games against the field, there is room to amend the way I do things to better suite your playstyle.
Sideboarding is often considered an exact science, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I enjoy playing dangerously, siding Supreme Verdict against decks that pack a ton of Blood Baron of Vizkopa. I rely on the power of Thoughtseize; Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and the one Far // Away to take care of business, but many players would feel more comfortable having additional outs, which is perfectly fine. Many situations will come up where there are safe, conservative routes and dangerous, aggressive routes.
The metagame in Standard is forever shifting, and the less stale the format is, the more difficult it is to predict. The biggest player in Standard right now is still Mono-Black Devotion, as demonstrated by Yuuya Watanabe. There are a few different varieties of the devotion menace, but the scariest one for me is B/W. B/W Midrange has been a huge problem for me both in live play and on Magic Online. It packs the very best of Mono-Black Devotion and adds in Obzedat, Ghost Council; Blood Baron of Vizkopa; and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.
The real problem of Standard is clearly Pack Rat, which allows a deck to tunnel its way to victory without many decisions at all. I feel about Pack Rat the same way I feel about True-Name Nemesis—both cards are very uninteractive and promote a lack of ingenuity and playskill. True-Name Nemesis is much worse in this regard, but Pack Rat makes opponents feel helpless on turn 2 a majority of the time, which I don’t think is great for the game. Pack Rat doesn’t have the same effect on a control opponent, and players wielding Pack Rat have a lot more to think about when the removal suite is more efficient. When a Pack Rat controller knows the removal spells are limited, the games often play out the same, and they’re rather boring.
By no means do I think Pack Rat should be banned or played less, but I think it kills off a lot of aggro and midrange players’ dreams as well as makes the mirror that much more unbearable. Our job in this mess of a situation is to ensure that we aren’t caught off guard and sleeve up an adequate amount of removal to handle the replicating vermin.
I believe Standard is a healthy format even with the existence of Pack Rat and Mono-Black Devotion’s dominance. There are so many different types of decks to play, and the usual people will complain that Standard isn’t fun due to this deck or that. That type of argument is always made and is the nature of a limited card selection format. If we all played Block instead of Standard for months and months, I guarantee those complaints would intensify. Standard will always be boring for players that hate seeing the same five or six decks on repeat, and my suggestion is to play cards that spice up your life and give you competitive edge against the usual suspects.
A perfect example is Ali Aintrazi’s "interesting" Five-Color deck, with which he went 8-2 this past weekend at the SCG Invitational in Charlotte. I begged and pleaded with him to add Plasm Capture, and he stood his ground, fought me at every avenue, and then landed in the money with ease. I didn’t do well in the Invitational, but my Standard record prior to falling off the wagon was 5-1. Cards like Gild and Sin Collector did amazing things for me just like they had on Magic Online. Play the cards you enjoy, but be sure to align them with the metagame.
There are other decks in the format that range in difficulty. The most difficult task for Esper Control is G/R Monsters. The deck packs the full complement of planeswalkers and creatures that give any control mage a migraine. Each planeswalker is devastating on its own, and most creatures cast by the Monsters player warrant a Supreme Verdict by themselves. This combination is deadly, and the matchup is quite tough. I dedicated a huge portion of the sideboard to defend against the creature and planeswalker weak points, which yielded some success online. The deck isn’t too popular among the players I’ve run into in live play, but online you’ll see it pretty often so a plan must be devised.
Another tough matchup is R/W Burn if you ever have the misfortune of being paired against it. I used to pack Trading Post and Fiendslayer Paladin in the board for the matchup, but it isn’t popular enough to dedicate precious space to it. You also have the power of Blood Baron of Vizkopa, and that along with Obzedat, Ghost Council can give you a quick edge as long as you can prevent some early damage to yourself.
That’s enough talk about the bad matchups. Let’s talk about the matchups that I’m happy to see. Straight Mono-Black Devotion is a very good matchup in my opinion. There are times when they can Thoughtseize you repeatedly and then play Underworld Connections, but if they don’t do that series of plays, you have a ton of game against them. Four copies of Thoughtseize is a fantastic arsenal versus Mono-Black Devotion, which gives you the unique opportunity to pull their hand apart piece by piece and give them a taste of their own medicine.
The creatures in Mono-Black Devotion aren’t too scary, and the removal package in addition to our planeswalker power can keep threatening things off the board and produce advantage at the same time. When you see a few black spells early on, don’t be afraid unless they drop a Blood Baron of Vizkopa.
Sphinx’s Revelation mirrors are favorable as well. There will be people who point out my lack of counterspells in my starting 60, but things change drastically in the sideboarded games since I gain access to Sin Collector, Thoughtseize, counterspells, Revoke Existence, and big creatures that have a great deal of protection against enemy spells.
One of the biggest perks of this list is the density of threats. Four copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa, four copies of Thoughtseize, three copies of Sin Collector, and a few other combinations of cards provide inevitably against the mirror with tight play. The matchup still boils down to an Aetherling war, which I included in the maindeck specifically for the Invitational. I cut the second Obzedat, Ghost Council but if your area has a lot of control, I’d keep two of the Spirit Advisor.
Aetherling is a necessary evil if Esper Control is running rampant but is not mandatory if U/W Control is the boss of the block. I’m trying to dominate the control mirror from a different angle with this strategy. Using a metric ton of hand disruption with some of it being attached to a 2/1 body, you can create a very tempo-based assault on your opponent. Flying out of the gates early on and removing cards from their hand left and right will allow you to sneak in a monstrous threat on turn 5. This works especially well because your opponent has to take out some Supreme Verdict, Devour Flesh, and various other answers to make room for cards that have higher impact in the control matchup.
The usual way to victory in the first game besides drawing the best part of your deck is to sandbag a Thoughtseize or two and force through either Aetherling or Obzedat, Ghost Council for the victory. Games 2 and 3 are much easier to dominate due to the onslaught of cards that were previously discussed.
Esper Control has had good matchups against jank, currently dominates jank, and will forever defeat jank in the long run. The combination of countermagic, removal, and card draw is a recipe for victory against average and unique decks. I’ve played against G/B Dredge a few times with success. Cards like Supreme Verdict, Detention Sphere, Gild, and other goodies have a way of killing any threatening creature from the deck, with Sphinx’s Revelation enabling you to get right back to a full hand. This and other decks can just lose to a lone Blood Baron of Vizkopa.
The power level of the cards in Esper gives it a great shot against any deck. Some of the easier matchups that you want to get paired against are Mono-Blue Devotion, R/W Devotion, W/x Aggro, and most decks that have aggressive creatures with little to no burn.
Sideboarding: The Big Four
Before I leave today, here is my sideboarding guide for the big four decks. I hope this has helped you, and remember to always believe in the Esper machine.
Mono Black Devotion
In on the play:
In on the draw:
Out on the draw:
Out on the play: