Feature Article – Esper Control in Standard

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Wednesday, March 24th – With Standard still dominated by the Red/Green/Black wrecking machine, Ben Lundquist is looking for something a little different. Today, he shares his funky Esper Control deck for Standard play. With UW Control mutating into a tap-out strategy, is this the next evolution of the modern countermagic deck?

I was originally planning to write an entire article about the Barely Boros deck that I played at PT: San Diego, but after some more games with it I am not very happy with how it has been performing. At the PT I had won a couple of games completely off the back of Stone Idol Trap, but finishing the tournament with a 6-4 record with that deck is not something I am proud about. I was very happy with the deck on Day 1 when I started 4-1, and even thought I had one of the best decks in the room. While I could have played better, there were also some glaring holes in my matchups. Here is the list I played for reference…

4 Arid Mesa
7 Mountain
1 Naya Panorama
1 Plains
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Tectonic Edge
4 Terramorphic Expanse

4 Goblin Guide
4 Hell’s Thunder
4 Hellspark Elemental
4 Plated Geopede

2 Ajani Vengeant
3 Earthquake
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Searing Blaze
2 Stone Idol Trap
4 Zektar Shrine Expedition

2 Ajani Vengeant
1 Banefire
3 Chandra Ablaze
1 Earthquake
4 Path to Exile
2 Pyroclasm
2 Stone Idol Trap

The first problem was that I lost both of my matches to Jund. Going in I felt confident about my chances in the event solely because of how the Jund matchup appeared to be. While it is probably favored, it is not by the percentage that I would have liked it to be. One of the reasons why that’s so is that there are actually no relevant sideboard cards in the list I played for the Jund matchup. We cut the Goblin Ruinblasters from the sideboard with an understanding that the matchup was good and that we could focus more on the other decks in the format. Looking back on it, however, the combination of Tectonic Edge and Goblin Ruinblasters is what really turned me on to the deck, and I probably wouldn’t have even considered playing it if that wasn’t an option.

As I said, I finished the tournament 6-4, and wasn’t too happy with that record. Two losses to UWr Control, and the other two from Jund. I was convinced that the deck was better than that, so I decided to play it a little more before giving up on it. Again, I was not happy with the deck, and as such I do not recommend that you play it. Other than the deck not being up to my standards, I did learn other important things about it too…

One of the things I learned was that although Stone Idol Trap straight up won me a match and was good in some other scenarios as well, it was still not a great card to rely on. At one point my opponent attacked me for lethal with a Steppe Lynx, Knight of the White Orchid, Kor Firewalker, and a Baneslayer Angel, which allowed me to double trap him off my 4 lands, but had he left back any creature I would have easily lost that game. I do not like to rely on my opponents messing up, though I am happy when they do, because it does not give actual results of how good the deck is. The truth is that I could have probably won two matches that I lost at the PT with this deck, but I definitely won a couple that I shouldn’t have. Another thing that I learned was that though it was awesome to have a one mana sideboard answer to Kor Firewalkers and Baneslayer Angels in Path to Exile, I did not actually want to cast path on the Firewalkers because it would just ramp them into Baneslayer.

Then, Ding Dong Yuan Leong wins GP KL with Mono Red splashing Black instead of White!

Not many people know this, since it is not at all relevant, but right behind Jace Beleren and Remand as my favorite cards is Deathmark. Last season it was the perfect answer to Dorans and Putrid Leaches, and this season it is the perfect answer to Kor Firewalkers and Baneslayer Angels. Not only does it do it for a single mana, but it doesn’t ramp those Kor Firewalkers into Baneslayer Angels. Red is not a color that can allow its opponent an extra turn, which is pretty much what happens when you path an early Firewalker.

I have played this version for a few days now, and I think the deck is really good. I haven’t lost many matches with the deck, but I am still not doing what I want to be doing when I play Magic and that is interacting with my opponent. There are only so many things you can do with Ball Lightnings, Hell’s Thunders, and Hellspark Elementals. I want to make difficult decisions that will either win me the game or lose it for me. I don’t want to play the hand I am dealt and hope it goes all the way. I want to draw cards, solve complex game states, and make my opponents upset as I destroy their plans. The most important thing to me is always going to be winning the game, but until I have more control over that than my deck does I will not be satisfied.

I imagine that most of you feel the same way or else you would all be playing Jund. It isn’t very hard to play and it beats even its worst matchups a good amount of the time. At a PT where there is a lot on the line, I want to either be playing the best deck or be very well prepared to beat that deck. Right now, however, it is not the case that I need to win as much as possible for my PT life. It is what I like to call downtime, and when downtime occurs, I like to play competitive decks that not only win but that are also fun.

I first started with Chapin’s UW deck from San Diego and thought it was pretty good. It did not win as much as Mono Red splashing Black, but it was not far off either. The main problem that I had with the deck, though, was that I cannot stand Treasure Hunt. Tell me it draws 1.7 cards, tell me it draws 2.6 cards I will tell you it draws one card. In the early game I want lands, so give me lands. This card is not going to give you lands. It is going to give you only a spell 60% of the time. In the late game it gives you lands and a spell because you get to abuse this card with Jace and Halimar Depths. Well, in the late game I want spells! One spell will not cut it for my late game card draw, and since this card is not good in the early turns, then what is the point? If I live long enough to be Jacing with extra mana available, you do not need Treasure Hunt. If you are thinking that late game you can draw Tectonic Edge and Celestial Colonnade off this card, then you are still not thinking clearly. Jace was the card that found these for you. As much as I dislike Treasure Hunt, I do realize that there aren’t too many other options out there, but there are some.

Esper Charm is pretty efficient card draw, especially for Standard. Not only does it give you cards, but it also gives you options, which is exactly what I am looking for. Making the opponent discard two is not irrelevant, and neither is blowing up an enchantment. Did you realize that a lot of UW Control’s problems come from pesky enchantments? Mythic’s Finest Hour, Luminarch Ascension, Manabarbs, Anthem effects, and Oblivion Ring are no longer safe with this awesome instant in your deck. Once I figured out how awesome having Esper Charm in my deck would be, I was able to start constructing a deck.

First, I had to make sure the mana was manageable, because there it doesn’t make sense to go through all that work just to find out you have bad mana. Now that Treasure Hunt was no longer in the deck, it was pretty easy to cut Halimar Depths, even though I think that card is still decent with fetchlands. The reason behind this is because the deck can’t have infinite taplands, and Arcane Sanctum was obviously going to be in the deck. Everflowing Chalice is another card that I have a lot of respect for, but as I am planning on tightening up my curve and the fact that it doesn’t help me cast Esper Charm made it a fairly easy cut. Without Chalice it is going to be a lot harder to activate Celestial Colonnade, which is why I traded them for Creeping Tar Pit. A low activation cost and the ability to throw off an opponent’s plays with their planeswalkers is more of that interaction that I am looking for. Other bonuses came out of adding a color, such as having on color fetchlands that would work well with Jace.

After making up most of the manabase, it was time for introducing the spells. There were quite a few that I thought were potentials to make the cut, and from there I tinkered with the list until I got positive results from the cards I was playing. Here is an early version of the deck…

4 Arcane Sanctum
4 Marsh Flats
4 Glacial Fortress
3 Creeping Tar Pit
6 Island
3 Swamp
2 Plains
3 Duress
3 Essence Scatter
2 Flashfreeze
4 Spreading Seas
1 Smother
1 Doom Blade
1 Celestial Purge
4 Cancel
4 Esper Charm
4 Wall of Denial
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
3 Baneslayer Angel
1 Identity Crisis

There a couple of reasons for random miser cards that are making the deck look so ugly. One of them is because in the early stages of a deck you have to figure out what cards are good and which ones are underperforming. By trying as many cards as possible it is much easier to cut out the rift raft and start streamlining the deck. The other reason is because in this format, there is no angle to attack every deck in the format from. In the past we had cards like Smother that were good against Goblins, Psychatog, and Madness, but nowadays if we play a card like Smother it will be good in a handful of situations like killing manlands, Putrid Leach, and Knights of the Reliquary, or dead cards because the opponent has Bloodbraid Elf or Baneslayer Angel. By mixing up the removal and counterspells, you are less likely to draw a bunch of dead cards, if any at all.

After many matches I came up with my current list, which is as follows…

There are a lot of things that are going on this deck that there is no way to cover all of them. One thing I did was split up the manlands, which offers the deck two advantages and only one disadvantage. The disadvantage is that if you draw the Colonnade early, you will not be able to effectively scare the opponents off their planeswalkers. The advantages come from both the ability to make more decisions during the game and having a slightly higher possibility to activate the Creeping Tar Pit early by having an additional Black source that comes into play untapped, since switching the manlands threw off the mana ratio, and thus a Drowned Catacomb replaces a Glacial Fortress. Something else that you might notice about the deck is that Path to Exile and Spreading Seas aren’t very good friends, but somehow are both in my list. The reason behind this is pretty simple, however. I do not have Spreading Seas in the deck in hopes to manascrew my opponent, because it is hard to do this with four Spreading Seas in the deck. The purpose of these Seas are to “kill” manlands, which the deck can otherwise have a rough time doing.

Some other things that changed are the inclusion of Day of Judgment with the exit of Wall of Denial, and also the more streamlined decklist that started with random numbers of cards. Reasons why these changes were made were due to me figuring out which cards I preferred, and due to me not being satisfied with the Jund matchup. While Wall of Denial was awesome against manlands, it was not so awesome against Siege-Gang Commander and Malakir Bloodwitch. I still like Wall of Denial and will continue to work with that part of the deck until I am comfortable with leaving it out of the maindeck.

Here are some cards I haven’t mentioned yet and deserve the time to be discussed…

Duress — I like this card much more than Negate. One reason for this is that it will fit into the curve well, and the other reason is that you will know when you can tap out for a Jace or Baneslayer and be safe.

Essence Scatter and Flashfreeze — I group this in one because they are very similar. I am playing a lot of counterspells because instant speed card draw makes these much better. If you don’t counter something on their turn, you still get to use the mana that you would otherwise have lost forever. The control matchups are already good, so having dead cards against them is actually not so bad.

Path to Exile — If there was a removal spell that was cheap and instant speed, while good against the majority of the creatures in the format, it would be here instead. The only ones I can think of are Celestial Purge and Doom Blade and they are both too situation for me. 2 Path, 1 Purge, and 1 Doom Blade might be best, but for the time being this is what I feel more comfortable with.

Decks are always evolving, and this one is no different. That means there is no situated sideboard, because if even one card in the maindeck is changed that means that the sideboard would most likely need to be changed around as well. The above sideboard does work well with this maindeck, so let me cover why I chose certain cards over others.

Deathmark — This card is unbelievable against the Bant and Naya decks. If you save your counters for Ranger of Eos it is easy to play the one-for-one game with them. The cards in this Esper deck are cheap and effective.

Jace Beleren – This is not necessary, but it is a proactive card that puts you a little over the top in a Blue matchup, which is nice.

Wall of Denial – This was Celestial Purge for a while, but the fact that this is much better against the Red decks makes me give the Wall a nod.

Identity Crisis – This card is pretty brutal against some of the decks out there. Open the Vaults loses their entire hand and graveyard; just think about that for a minute. The other place I really like it is against the new tap-out UW Control deck. I dare you to tap out for a Mind Spring.

Negate – Pretty basic… you know when it’s good.

Baneslayer Angel – This comes in against pretty much everything that isn’t control or Jund.

Day of Judgment – Again, you know when it’s good.

If you are looking for the same thing I am, a fun deck that is also competitive, then this is a going to be a good choice. It allows you to make a lot of your own decisions, and has a lot of interaction with the opponent. It might not have the same win percentage as the Red deck splashing Black or Jund, but it does allow you to make enough decisions where you are the deciding factor of who wins while not putting that entirely on the deck. I hope you all get a chance to try out the deck and enjoy it as much as I do.

Until next time…

Ben Lundquist