Esper Walkers In Modern

Four-time SCG Invitational Top 8 competitor Shaheen Soorani has decided to try his pet deck in a different format: Esper Walkers in Modern!

Esper Walkers has been my go-to deck in Standard for quite some time. Those of you who have followed me for a short time know me as the creator and permanent pilot of the tricolored control deck. Those of you who have read my work since the beginning know that buried deep inside that Esper brain of mine lies other blue-based control and nifty combo decks from other eras. I feel the end of Esper Walkers approaching in Standard with a rotation that removes Lingering Souls; Sorin, Lord of Innistrad; Forbidden Alchemy; and Liliana of the Veil. All rotations leave us with remnants of a deck we once played. I think that U/W Control will still be a powerhouse due to the strength of Azorius; however, I do feel that the third color (if any) will not be black.

With that in mind, I have the burning desire to take down something with Esper Walkers before that fateful day, and my resolve is strong. Online play with the new version of Esper Walkers has yielded great results in terms of win percentage, and live games have also been very promising. The StarCityGames.com Invitational in Somerset, New Jersey will be my opportunity to prove that Esper Walkers can dance with the powerhouses of Jund Midrange and Junk Reanimator.

Even though Standard is what has been on my mind for the last few weeks, I do have something special and new for you guys in this article. You may remember the distaste I have expressed for Modern since its rise as the new "Extended" competitive format. That distaste has gradually been washed away by waves of bannings that have made the format for control a slightly better place. I piloted Footsteps of the Goryo / Protean Hulk combo at a Pro Tour a few years ago and posted a modest 3-2 record on day 1 (day 2 didn’t happen for the record).

I played that same deck in a PTQ where I lost my win-and-in; both of my losses came from them playing a Grafdigger’s Cage and me not being able to overcome the hate. Since there’s still some hate out there for graveyard combo, I decided to try building something I have been more comfortable with in recent times, which lead me to an obvious choice.

The bannings are truly the only thing that has brought me into Modern. Some people accept that certain decks are not the best in particular metagames and settle for playing what’s best—I’m not one of those people, and neither are many of you. I’m decent at the game in general, but I know my true advantage comes from planeswalkers, card draw, and removal from this day forth, so let’s get it done!

Win Conditions

Baneslayer Angel

Like the control decks of old, there’s a certain flyer that punishes the wicked in the form of Baneslayer Angel. Baneslayer was powerful in Standard due to her ability to avoid a single Lightning Bolt, and once in play she was nearly impossible to race for an opposing aggro or midrange deck. In Modern, the scenarios where Baneslayer Angel is powerful mirror those of old Standard. Decks like Jund can really pack removal in, but outside of a few copies of Maelstrom Pulse they’re pretty cold to the pro-Dragon beater. Cards like Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize will create a safe passage for Baneslayer to do her thing and finish the game in an orderly fashion.

Other options are Sun Titan or even Consecrated Sphinx to top off the curve at six, but I prefer Baneslayer due to her power over the aggressive decks. Not only does she end the game while attacking, but the turn she’s played the ground assault against you is suspended indefinitely. Try Baneslayer out, and if she doesn’t work the way I described, then I would probably go the Consecrated Sphinx route.

Gideon Jura and Elspeth, Knight-Errant

The best way to win in Modern with a control deck is via planeswalkers. The greatest thing about planeswalkers is that they can finish opponents off but also do so much prior to that to get you to a point of board advantage and stabilization. Gideon and Elspeth are easily two of the best planeswalkers ever printed and warped Standard one way or another by their mere presence. In Modern, I’d have to say that Gideon is slightly better than Elspeth in a general sense because of the removal capabilities, but Elspeth at the massive loyalty of five after its first activation is no slouch.

These planeswalkers are great against all the non-combo decks out there, from Zoo and U/W/R Delver to Jund and BUG Midrange. Since combo is on the decline, the opportunity for control has opened up; it was only a matter of time until all the powerful Standard planeswalkers poured into the format. Even though the world hasn’t realized it yet, these rotated powerhouses will make their mark on the Modern world soon enough.

Lingering Souls and Vendilion Clique

There will always be souls. Lingering Souls is one of my favorite cards ever printed; if we play it in Legacy and Standard, then using it in Modern is a no-brainer. The better combo is (even decks like Birthing Pod and Splinter Twin), the worse Lingering Souls is. With that in mind, you’re free to cut them completely if those decks and others like them are running rampant in your area.

If you cut Lingering Souls for that reason, I would add a second Vendilion Clique and a third Snapcaster Mage to improve those matchups across the board. Souls was so good in the previous Modern format that Jund splashed white just to play the card for the mirror and other aggressive decks. Even though Jund is back to its purest form, that is a pretty bold move and displays the power level of the Spirit producer.

Vendilion Clique is just a good card. In Legacy, I got my first real taste of the card because in Standard let’s be honest—I didn’t play Faeries too often. I may have made a huge mistake back then after experiencing the effectiveness of it. If the card is so good, why don’t I play more than one? There are a few reasons.

The first is because the three casting cost slot is a tough spot to get into my Modern maindeck. Jace Beleren has been sweet against the decks that take some time to kill you and combo decks. Snapcaster Mage is great in a deck with eleven one-mana spells, and we just went over the advantages of Lingering Souls.

The second reason is that drawing two against aggressive decks can be pretty awful but I’m never upset with just one. Lastly, the whole legend thing doesn’t sit well with me at times when I’m trying to use the first one and then play some Souls with flashback to get my aggro on (until the new legend rule change of course). With all that considered, I wouldn’t be against sneaking a second one in there if your metagame calls for it.


Creeping Tar Pit is just too sweet. The unblockable ability of Tar Pit is our sole weapon against resolved planeswalkers on the other side and can dodge large Tarmogoyfs and other creatures later in the game when the race is on. Just like my Standard deck, this one can get an aggressive draw and top it off with a Cryptic Command to tap all combatants on their turn. Tar Pit has been a staple of control since it was printed and even sees some play in Legacy. The only downside of it is its vulnerability to Lightning Bolt / Lightning Helix.

I added one Celestial Colonnade to help diversify the manland win conditions and also because the deck is heavy in the U/W realm with just a touch of black. If the Colonnade isn’t doing it for you and you just want to max out Creeping Tar Pits, that would be an acceptable change, but I like to have options later in the game.

The Spells

A good control deck needs access to multiple forms of disruption and removal. The balancing of those control weapons is the truly difficult part of deckbuilding. The best way to look at it in my opinion is to run the bare minimum of removal needed to consistently win against aggressive decks. This doesn’t mean running two Path to Exiles and a Supreme Verdict and getting lucky on a regular basis; instead, we run the appropriate amount to kill things and then play powerful win conditions or disruption. Winning against aggro decks at four life is the same as winning at eighteen. I point this out to emphasize the importance of balancing removal with the other forms of disruption. In this deck, we disrupt our opponents by way of discard and countermagic.

Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek

Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize are all-stars in Legacy. Usually, things that are great in Legacy are pretty good in Modern, and these two spells are no exception. Besides a couple Lingering Souls and sideboard options, these discard spells are the reason the deck is Esper and not straight U/W. There are very few matchups where hand disruption is not effective, and even Thoughtseize against an aggressive deck isn’t the worst.

The deck runs a package of four in the maindeck, which has been the perfect amount for me in previous formats and deck setups that are similar to this one. Combined with Snapcaster Mage, it creates situations where you can pull apart an opponent’s hand with ease. Running more is called for against certain decks, but in some matchups we have empty hands relatively early and can’t afford to draw multiple hand disruption spells later in the game. The sideboard is not set in stone for this deck yet, but the one thing that will be in there is at least one additional Inquisition of Kozilek to up the count against the combo/control decks after board.

Serum Visions, Wall of Omens, and Jace Beleren

These three are the forms of card draw in the deck. I threw Wall of Omens in here without much testing, so it might be a bust. If there aren’t many Tarmogoyf / Dark Confidant decks out there, then Wall doesn’t do a heck of a lot, but then again it has the best ability in the game…

It draws a card!

I could see this card becoming a fourth Serum Visions and a third Snapcaster Mage if your area is cluttered with slower decks. As you can imagine, I’m not thrilled with cards like Serum Visions, but in this deck it’s necessary to give you options with Snapcaster Mage, play a lower land count and still hit land drops, and put unnecessary cards (removal against control, late hand disruption, etc.) on the bottom of your library.

And finally, Jace Beleren is back in action. I really like Jace Beleren in this deck because he is the only way to produce full card advantage as the turns go by. After dealing with a couple creatures or just flat out against a control/combo deck, Jace can get slightly out of hand by producing continuous card advantage the longer he ticks away. We all have played baby Jace at some point and know that looks can be deceiving; even though he appears to be a "low power" planeswalker, we all know he isn’t. Jace provides that draw a card and fog effect that can really help you out of some hairy situations.

The only other card I have considered adding is Sphinx’s Revelation, but it would only be a one-of in this current build. Sphinx’s Revelation is a lot worse in Modern than in Standard because of the speed of the format and the abundance of countermagic. I have seen some decks have success with it, but I’m not convinced it would be good in here.

The Counterspells

Mana Leak and Cryptic Command are the counterspells of choice in this build of Esper. Each of these cards is a four-of to provide consistent draws each game. Mana Leak is just a great card and can save you in the early game better than anything else in the format. We all know how good countermagic is against control/combo, and it turns out Mana Leak is great against aggro/midrange as well (especially on the play). A lot of times I will board out the set of Leaks on the draw against Zoo decks, but I bring them right back in on the play. This deck can easily be changed a little here and there to fit your play style and preferences; however, the Mana Leaks are pretty necessary in all builds.

I made the mistake of playing less than four Cryptic Commands once, and I will not do the same again. The card has the appearance of an "expensive instant" that isn’t good against early game threats. That is completely false, and it is a card I would never completely cut against fast decks. This doesn’t mean you can’t board one out once in a while when there is no other option, but at some point in the match you’ll find yourself yearning for one of these multipurpose counterspells.

Cryptic Command’s most popular use is the counter/draw mode, so it could be added to the segment above as card advantage. The interaction of Cryptic Command and Snapcaster Mage is another one of those zingers that can really devastate an opponent in the late game. Trust me on the triple blue bullet—it and Mana Leak are easy four-ofs.

The Removal

Path to Exile is the spot removal weapon of choice, and there is arguably none better besides Sword to Plowshares in Legacy. Path is an instant speed removal spell that can dispatch a Pestermite to prevent instant death or take care of a Dark Confidant that will bury you in card advantage. The spell takes care of business on the battlefield and prevents dying triggers all at the same time. I could keep talking about how great Path to Exile is, but I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir.

The other removal spell used is Supreme Verdict. When Supreme Verdict was spoiled, my first thought was how good it would be in the older formats like Legacy. Countermagic can put an end to any control deck that is setting up for the big board sweep, but luckily this one cannot be stopped. I really wish this card was around during the U/W Delver era of Standard as there were countless times that I faced a Geist of Saint Traft and sadly dropped my Day of Judgment into the graveyard after their Mana Leak resolved.

In Modern, our mass removal effect will resolve and is a necessary card to keep aggressive players honest. My first instinct was to use an effective array of spot removal spells to keep creatures in check, and that may be a viable strategy. But the threat of Supreme Verdict is a powerful thing to have in Modern, and having it is insurance to punish those who play out their hand and cross their fingers.

The sideboard is incomplete at this point. I will put the completed list on Twitter in the coming weeks, but the main reason there is no sideboard is that Modern season is over and I can’t give a full professional opinion on what to include in an exact fifteen. Cards that are good to have are Kataki, War’s Wage / Hurkyl’s Recall (Affinity), more hand disruption / Memoricide (combo), Leyline of Sanctity (burn / hand Protection), more Supreme Verdicts and removal (aggro), and a few other bullets to tighten some matchups. I will release a sideboard on Twitter soon, but expect it to change once Modern gets back in full swing.

Thanks for reading guys, and I hope this Modern take on Esper Walkers can bring you success. I’m definitely no Modern expert, but I tried to explain my card choices to the best of my ability, and I think Esper Walkers could be a viable option in some form next season. Take care, and see you next time!


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