My Arena Decklists co-host Gerry Thompson has been giving me the hard sell on Esper Midrange ever since the early days of War of the Spark Standard, and I understand why.
Esper Midrange seems like everything I want in a Magic deck. Every micro-decision is incredibly impactful and it presents you with the type of games that can make you feel like a genius. Meanwhile, you have few truly awful matchups and solid sideboard plans against the vast majority of the metagame. And yet, I’m convinced the deck remains a worse option than a properly built version of Esper Control.
Structurally, Esper Midrange has real, pronounced flaws. The deck is incredibly reliant on hitting land drops one through five. This incentivizes higher land counts, but without the resource conversion mechanisms of Chemister’s Insight and Search for Azcanta, the deck floods far too often in the late-game. Sorin is a solid answer to this issue, and I do appreciate that previous versions of the deck likely underutilized the powerful planeswalker. I’ve also seen versions of the deck that are beginning to lean very hard on Elite Guardmage and Search for Azcanta itself, which seems like another approach that admittedly may mitigate some of my concerns in this area.
The other flaw of this deck is that its maindeck configuration continues to stray from its more Fish-like roots. While the near-absence of countermagic is almost certainly a correct adaptation for the expected metagame, it does mean that Esper Midrange is apt to have a harder time against random decks in the format, as its clock remains somewhat anemic and its gameplan is tailored to beat the expected top decks.
In past formats, this would be a beautiful place to be, but War of the Spark Standard feels like it has a rich and still somewhat underdeveloped Tier 2. Is this the week where Jeskai SuperFriends is everywhere? Maybe Mass Manipulation strategies will finally get their due. How about Izzet Phoenix, which has won the last two Magic Online MCQs? Against all these decks, I would prefer the raw power of the more linear Esper Control.
And whether these flaws are ultimately answered in deckbuilding or not, I expect little to change the dynamic of the head-to-head matchup between Esper Control and Esper Midrange. While sideboard games remain close, Esper Control will likely to continue to carry the advantage in Game 1.
In games where these flaws do not surface, it admittedly feels like you’re playing one of the more powerful midrange strategies we’ve seen in recent times. The incentives to pick up a version of Esper that is capable of “tractioning up” (as Michael Majors would say) are clear. Three-mana planeswalkers are everywhere, and Teferi, Time Raveler is rapidly becoming a focal point of the format. Obviously, attacking these threats will always yield a better return on both mana and cards than answering them on a one-for-one basis with something like Vraska’s Contempt.
It would be easy to regard this as the death-knell in the comparison of Esper Control to Esper Midrange. However, options in Esper colors remain diverse, and a creatureless approach is still completely reasonable upon making appropriate concessions. The correct response to these planeswalkers is to increase answers while simultaneously minimizing their impact on your strategy. After a ton of play, I’ve settled on the following list for this week.
Some thoughts on the unique aspects of my list:
The Removal Suite
Two-mana spot removal alone won’t keep us in the game against decks that explode onto the battlefield. Cry of the Carnarium has fallen out of favor in some maindecks. This strikes me as a mistake. Not only is the card strong against the best midrange deck (Esper Midrange), Izzet Phoenix is very much a deck on the rise. -2/-2 is good sizing right now, and exile effects are relevant. It’s not like Cry of the Carnarium is any more dead than a two-mana removal spell would be against Esper Control.
An increased number of Vraska’s Contempt leaves us ready to fight in inexorable advance of our new planeswalker overlords. The Eldest Reborn is in on the anti-planeswalker action as well. In many games, especially after sideboard, Teferi, Time Raveler is going to prevent countermagic from being a factor. We want haymaker removal and with an increased number of sweepers we’re able to ensure that no debris will get in the way of our Eldest Reborn taking out a juicy target. Oath of Kaya continues to own a spot by virtue of simultaneously hedging against Mono-Red Aggro and planeswalkers that would otherwise nest on the battlefield. If Simic Nexus returns to the metagame, I might be tempted to return to Despark, but lately I found it rotting in my hand far too often.
Three Dovin’s Veto, Zero Absorb
Three-mana countermagic is just hard to stomach right now. With serious noncreature threats coming onto the battlefield on Turns 2 or 3, we are looking for early action. This move unquestionably leaves us vulnerable to things like God-Eternal Oketra and Frilled Mystic, but we can attempt to mitigate the effect of these cards by playing more of a tap-out control style backed by Teferi, Time Raveler.
Speaking of Teferi, this is the main reason why our countermagic numbers are so low. Letting a three-mana planeswalker blank six or seven cards in our deck doesn’t strike me as a recipe for success. The removal and card advantage contained in this list allow us to comfortably play games under Teferi’s restriction when we need to. Teferi is deck-warping, but not deck defeating.
Two Chemister’s Insight; Two Narset, Parter of Veils
Chemister’s Insight suffers oppression from both Teferi and Narset, and we have other avenues for card advantage these days – the best being our own Narsets. While I respect the ambition of control mages who have tried playing the full four Narset, I do think it is slightly too challenging to protect and have be your main source of card advantage, but Cry of the Carnarium main makes things a little easier. I love that Narset grants you more reliable access to your sweeper on Turn 4 in matchups where you simply must have it.
If you’re scared about trimming Chemister’s Insight, I want to share a thought which has been very useful for me in building some very impactful control decks over the last couple of years. We’ve mostly forgotten this fact, but we play four-mana draw-twos because we must – not because we want to. Whenever I’ve been able to escape from the tyranny of Hieroglyphic Illumination, Glimmer of Genius, and the like, I’ve been thrilled to do so. Narset hasn’t granted us total freedom, but she has brought the deck a little lower to the ground.
To the inescapable sideboard guide!
VS Esper Control
There was a period where I was considering cutting Thief of Sanity from my sideboard, in part due to how effective Teferi, Time Raveler was at dealing with it in a tempo-positive fashion. I just don’t think it’s realistic to do so, though. You need a card to force the action in the early turns, and if you come to this war with no Thief of Sanity versus your opponent’s four copies, this matchup can become a bit of a nightmare. You can’t always ask your deck to provide the right answer versus myriad sideboard options when countermagic is no longer as widely viable. Play at least three copies.
The Eldest Reborn works here because at some point the game will become a Teferi, Time Raveler slog, and The Eldest Reborn will always be a swingy play.
It has surprised me how effective Vona, Butcher of Magan is at turning the corner. It’s the best closing tool because it also covers the possibility of your opponent redrawing to something like Experimental Frenzy and just going off. I tried Enter the God-Eternals, but too often my opponent was able to effectively play around the card, and the four life gained doesn’t really compare with a persistent lifelinker. This matchup is incredibly close, and a single mistake in “answer to threat assignment” will snowball out of control very quickly.
VS Mono-White Aggro/Azorius Aggro
This matchup is great, and you’re actively hoping your opponent takes off their Turn 3 to play something silly like Teferi. If this deck’s heavy penetration into the MPL decklists causes an uptick, we’ll be very happy.
VS Simic Nexus
What was previously a miserable matchup was turned on its head by Teferi and Narset, and you’ve moved to a slight favorite these days. Having access to two The Eldest Reborn is great here, as many decks have returned to Carnage Tyrant as their threat. Be conscious of Blast Zone. It’s challenging to play around perfectly, but extend as little as possible.
VS Esper Midrange
Out (on the draw):
In (on the draw):
Out (on the play):
In (on the play):
I’ve found a configuration for sideboard games that I’m very happy with, as we make an effective tap-out control deck. You’re better equipped to win the Thief of Sanity war, and at some point you’ll overwhelm their defenses and use their best spell against them as they flood out. The Eldest Reborn looks odd against a Hero of Precinct One deck, but the way the games play out generally leads to barren battlefields, and The Eldest Reborn will always be king in attrition situations.
VS Bant Midrange
Changes have made this matchup a bit worse. Carefully ration your very limited ways to deal with God-Eternal Oketra and try to keep Teferi on the battlefield to mitigate their Frilled Mystic / Vivien, Champion of the Wilds shenanigans. Instant-speed sweepers are a big game here.
VS Sultai Midrange
Esper Control has always had good setups against Sultai, and I think they’ve only gotten better since War of the Spark. Playing this matchup with access to The Eldest Reborn makes things feel much easier.
VS Various SuperFriends Decks
This deck is quite good in the format at large, but our spells line up very well. Having max Dovin’s Veto ironically helps ensure that Dovin, Hand of Control doesn’t just tax us out of the game. We have the best planeswalker removal suite in the format and are rewarded with a fine matchup here.
Unlike Gerry Thompson, I do believe the decision between Esper Control and Esper Midrange is a close one. However, a linear gameplan that simply overpowers most of the field is the correct call for a still-developing metagame, and Esper Control lacks some of the intrinsic flaws of Esper Midrange.
Let’s see if SCG Syracuse proves my theory right.