Esper Tested & Approved

Find out what Shaheen Soorani will be battling with this weekend in the Standard portion of the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas by reading this article!

After a couple weeks of testing, Esper Control is ready to go for the SCG Invitational in Las Vegas this weekend. I was on the fence about a few cards being large impact, but the list has been quite the heavy hitter. Between teaching, class, Xbox One, and my limited social life, I have been able to grind a ton of eight-man and heads-up queues on Magic Online. U/W/R Control and some misguided Pauper brought my rating down to 1680ish, but I’m back up to 1800 after two weeks of pure grinding with Esper Control.

The threat of red is more prevalent in heads-up queues, but in eight-man queues, where I’ve had the most success, I rarely run into it. I’ve also had to play against the Red Devotion deck a few more times than anticipated, and that matchup is just wonderful for Esper Control. In the comments of my last article, many of you brought up a few concerns with my decklist. In today’s article, I’ll address those concerns, talk about the cards that have been fantastic against an array of foes, and offer up some sideboard strategy for the three toughest decks. I want to thank all of you again for your suggestions and general comments because they truly help my game and writing.


One of the biggest concerns with my build of Esper Control is the absence of the 27th land. Since the beginning of my control voyage, I have steered away from playing a ton of lands. Control has the ability to use mana flood to its own advantage. Cards like Sphinx’s Revelation and expensive sorceries/planeswalkers give control mages an outlet for all of the excess lands you may draw in a given game. Because of Esper’s access to eight scry lands; four Azorious Charms; and the generally easy feat of hitting four lands for Jace, Architect of Thought, I feel that 26 lands is plenty.

I don’t fault any of you who want a little extra cushion with an additional land, and my only suggestion would be to add the fourth Sphinx’s Revelation if you plan upping the count. I’ve been really hammering Mono-Black Devotion even through their Thoughtseize flurry with three Revelations, but the fourth will give you more opportunities to use one early and have the peace of mind of an eventual topdecked one.

If I were to go up to 27 lands, I’d play a one-of Mutavault. My mana has been pristine throughout testing, which is directly related to the strength of the eight scry lands, and I’m not interested in tossing another basic in. Mutavault gives you some game against aggro as well as enemy planeswalkers. It has been a while since Esper utilized colorless lands, but I believe the mana base can handle one (two if you’re very greedy) in a 27 land setup. I suggest keeping it at 26, but the difference isn’t too crucial.

Another concern I read was about the absence of early removal, and I corrected my list very early on. I added a second Devour Flesh to the maindeck in place of a Hero’s Downfall. I know Hero’s Downfall is a removal spell too, but at the three-mana slot it may as well not be against the aggro decks. Hero’s Downfall has been a great card, and two has been the perfect amount to run. I’ve seen lists from Brian Braun-Duin and other writers that contain a few basic elements that we have implemented already, including Blood Baron of Vizkopa and early removal in the maindeck. For those who have seen those lists, you’ll notice the Dimir Charms, lack of Azorious Charms, and a few too many Thoughtseizes.

Counting Thoughtseize, there are nine two-mana or less spells in our deck to interact in the early turns with our foes. That is the sole reason for the one-of Syncopate over a third Dissolve. I can see additional Devour Fleshes in the maindeck when crafting an Esper Control list in an area that is full of R/G and red decks, but for the Invitational and Magic Online, the ratio of removal to other spells is optimal.

There were a few suggestions to run fringe cards like Shrivel, Divination, High Priest of Penance, and cards that are similar. I am all about some sweet off-the-grid cards, but the well of ingenuity has been tapped to the fullest at this point. The Trading Post in the sideboard is an all-star in conjunction with Fiendslayer Paladin and the slew of Doom Blades that come in against the aggro nemesis. The counterspell suite combined with Thoughtseize, Sin Collector, and powerful win conditions makes any control opponent tremble. The deck is firing on all cylinders, and I couldn’t be more confident going into next weekend. I was on the fence about Fiendslayer Paladin and a few other card choices last week prior to testing, but now I have reached a few conclusions I’d like to share with you guys.

They Passed The Test

Fiendslayer Paladin completely shuts down red aggressive strategies early on. The true power of the sideboard wonder is its battlefield effect after a Doom Blade and then followed by a Jace, Architect of Thought. There are other cards that complement Fiendslayer Paladin just as well; that is just one of the examples that comes to mind. Having three Blood Baron of Vizkopas doesn’t hurt the cause either. I still lose once in a while to the Boss Sligh version of Mono-Red Aggro with all of the one-drops, but on the play it’s really tough to fall. You have an even easier matchup against Red Devotion due to the slow starts that the archetype naturally has.

However, Fiendslayer Paladin has been atrocious against any black deck. In my last article, I explored the option of bringing him in to protect against Devour Flesh, and that has not worked out as well as I had hoped. Leave the Paladin in the board against those decks and use him only when battling against the red menace. I did cut one from the sideboard, but that is only for the Invitational. I left it at three online, and I suggest you all do the same unless red is dead in your area.

Merciless Eviction has been a stud against a huge portion of the field. The ability to have an "answer all" that isn’t vulnerable like Detention Sphere is fantastic. There are a few permanents out there that are either indestructible or do dangerous things when they hit the graveyard, and that is where Merciless Eviction shines. Just having that fifth Supreme Verdict—even at the cost of six—is an amazing game changer.

This brings us back to the 27th land controversy. I was recently told there was a touch of criticism in Michael Jacob stream about my list, and that was the focal point of the attacks. I’ve mentioned in a few articles now that the beauty of Magic is you or anyone else reading can remove a card here and up the count of a certain spell there and find success. The statistical advantage for adding one land over a spell in a list containing eight scry lands is negligible. If you are in the camp of wanting another land, drop Merciless Eviction for a Sphinx’s Revelation and find a cut elsewhere to fit it and you’ll do fine as well.

Sideboard Assistance

Mono-Red Aggro

+2 Fiendslayer Paladin, +3 Doom Blade, +1 Trading Post, +1 Blood Baron of Vizkopa

-1 Merciless Eviction, -1 Aetherling, -2 Dissolve, -1 Syncopate, -2 Thoughtseize

The cards coming in are essential in removing threats and gaining a ton of life. Anything that gains life or makes it hard to die from turns 1 through 3 have to be brought in, and cards that have the opposite effect have to be removed. Aetherling, Merciless Eviction, and countermagic are just too slow, while Thoughtseize doesn’t provide enough advantage to justify the loss of two life. The one Glare of Heresy in the sideboard above should be the third Fiendslayer Paladin for those playing in a field with a greater red presence.

Mono-Black Devotion

+2 Pithing Needle, +1 Blood Baron of Vizkopa

On the Draw: -2 Dissolve, -1 Supreme Verdict

On the Play: -1 Syncopate, -1 Supreme Verdict, -1 Dissolve

The big difference in the Mono-Black Devotion matchup from being on the play compared to the draw is the power of your countermagic. I used to board out an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion because of the abundance of Hero’s Downfalls, but I have been liberated from that mindset. With four Jace, Architect of Thoughts, there will be plenty of fodder for Hero’s Downfall to target. The power of the white planeswalker against Mutavaults, Desecration Demons, and any other ground pounder they would hope to defeat you with is extraordinary. Another big reason for keeping both Elspeth, Sun’s Champions in is their hand disruption. When you are being Thoughtseized, then Duressed, and then Thoughtseized, you need to have a density of win conditions to overcome the hand assault.

My win percentage against Mono-Black Devotion has been absurd with Esper Control, and some of that comes from knowing how to sideboard. They have Devour Flesh for Blood Baron of Vizkopa, but with three of them you’ll be able to land one eventually. Keeping both planeswalkers in with the one Aetherling also provides a reservoir of ways to win. The countermagic isn’t too terrible against them, but just having proactive spells to deal with their threats is much safer. The reason for Syncopate on the draw is to stop an Underworld Connections or Nightveil Specter; Dissolve is strictly better on the play.

Mono-Blue Devotion

+3 Doom Blade, +1 Gainsay

-2 Blood Baron of Vizkopa, -2 Dissolve (Syncopate and 1 Dissolve if on the draw)

This matchup is even better for us than Mono-Black Devotion. I’ve mentioned a ton of times the advantage for control players when playing against blue Draft commons. All of the one- and two-drops are basically worthless against you in a low number, and if they attempt to clutter the board to apply pressure, you have the uncounterable Supreme Verdict to clean up. The matchup is an absolute nightmare for them, but we do have a little sideboarding to get into.

Blood Baron of Vizkopa is an obvious dud against this deck and is easily sideboarded out. You’ll notice countermagic comes out pretty often as well, and that is because today’s control enjoys playing a "tap out" style instead. The answers that Esper has are just too powerful to cut for a hopeful prevent defense. Bring in the removal, sweep the board, and then slam the haymaker win condition against this deck and call it a day.

Esper Control Mirror

+1 Blood Baron of Vizkopa, +2 Sin Collector, +1 Glare of Heresy, +2 Negate, +1 Gainsay

-4 Supreme Verdict, -2 Devour Flesh, -1 Detention Sphere

Now, some will call me crazy or wrong for cutting all the answers to Blood Baron of Vizkopa, but hear me out. After sideboard we have two Thoughtseizes, two Dissolves, one Syncopate, one Merciless Eviction, and two Elspeth, Sun’s Champions to answer the mirror nuisance. This sideboard strategy is based off of our opponent having two Blood Baron of Vizkopas in there 75, and I love living dangerously.

If you want to play it safe and have another answer in the maindeck, I’ll completely understand. If that is the case, then take out one more Detention Sphere and add a Supreme Verdict. Devour Flesh is cute, but the uncounterable answer is just better. However, I do forbid you all to leave more than that in after board. Friends don’t let friends leave in a lot of Supreme Verdicts that can only kill one card that isn’t the end of the world anyway!

Detention Sphere is a deceptive card in the mirror match because on paper it looks great but in the real world it is trash most of the time. There are only planeswalkers that it can target, and sometimes that can be very temporary. That is why I go down to three and maybe two if you leave in one of the Supreme Verdicts. Detention Sphere combined with the two Hero’s Downfall wills be plenty of answers to the planeswalker threat on the other side of the board.

The mirror match has been dissected time after time and resulted in the same conclusion. Don’t let Aetherling resolve. Sometimes if I feel that my opponent has more Thoughtseizes and countermagic, I’ll bring in one emergency Pithing Needle to shut down all of the Aetherlings. Recent writers have been criticizing Aetherling, and I love it. Hopefully everybody except for us cuts Aetherling, which will result in us never losing the mirror. Aetherling is slow and clunky, but with six mana I slam it against midrange and it’s just fine.

Don’t listen to the haters by cutting the best win condition control has seen in years and banking solely on the power of Blood Baron of Vizkopa. If you do drop our blue buddy, then you’ll see tougher matchups against midrange and especially in the control war. There are a few other spicy ones that have been just as effective in the control war as endgame haymakers.

Sin Collector has been a beast. You’d be surprised how good a 2/1 attacker is putting aside its powerful ability. I like it better than additional Thoughtseizes, and I wish I could fit one more in the sideboard. The one of Glare of Heresy is our hate against Detention Sphere and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. It also serves as a bullet against any white aggro deck still lingering out there. Lastly, the countermagic is pretty standard with its role against fellow control magicians.

Other matchups follow a similar boarding strategy. Against decks with a lot of creatures, you take out the countermagic and bring in removal. Against decks with a ton of planeswalkers, Whip of Erebos, and Underworld Connections, you bring in Pithing Needle to shut all of that noise down. Pithing Needle acts as Detention Spheres five and six in most situations you will face. This is another card I was on the fence about before playing Esper Control, but it has been just fantastic.

The list I posted is what I’ll be playing card for card in the Invitational in Las Vegas this weekend. I hope this article helped some with sideboarding tips and answered some of the questions you all left in the comments last time around. Even with life being slightly hectic, I try to get out there and talk to you guys. We all know I’m not winning Pro Tours and I’m not getting rich off of writing about the power of control and Esper; however, I am getting connected with people that are fans of what I play and how I play, which is all that matters to me. Maybe I’ll win the Invitational and justify my current list of Esper or maybe you will, and that’s good enough for me. Take care friends!