Mono Esper Control At The Invitational

Everyone’s favorite expensive sorcery master is here to share his Esper control builds for the Season Two Invitational in both Standard and Modern!

The school year is winding down and Magic is amping up. I always look forward to my summers due to the semi-unemployment and the absurd amount of gaming that allows me to do on a daily basis. It’s no coincidence that my best performances are during the hotter months of the year, and I plan on having more success when I can devote my full time and energy to the sweetest game ever.

The first of my first summer tournaments is the Season Two Invitational approaching this weekend, and I am pretty stoked. I mentioned on Twitter that I’ll be playing my Esper Control deck in Modern this weekend, but pilot the Hulk Smash Combo deck at GP Charlotte next weekend if Esper doesn’t put up the numbers I’m looking for. I prefer Legacy over Modern any day, however I’ve always been a player that can adapt as the formats shift. This shift in the Invitational format isn’t that huge of a transition for me, and I’m always looking to get a chance to stomp someone with Gideon Jura once again.

Today’s article is going to be a brief rundown of both of my Season Two Invitational decklists, what I expect to see at these tournaments, and what you should expect when deciding on what Modern deck to play even if you’re not an Esper enthusiast like me.

Let’s start things off with Standard:

The biggest change that I’ve tested thoroughly is the inclusion of Thoughtseize. I’ve gotten by with avoiding the most powerful black card in Standard for quite some time until now. The lands in my deck are clunky, the loss of life is very relevant and difficult to gain back, and drawing it late-game instead of any other spell can be a death knell. When I used Thoughtseize in U/B Control or old Esper decks, I had so many ways to gain life back in the forms of Sphinx’s Revelation or even the lands in U/B like Dismal Backwater. This version of Esper Control has just Foul-Tongue Invocation, which is getting worse and worse as the number of midrange decks increases.

Abzan Megamorph has become the format dominator, with an aggro and midrange version that can punish control decks for running minimal amounts of countermagic, Hero’s Downfalls, Utter Ends, and other cards that can deal with the onslaught of powerful green cards. Utter End has never been better for me and I’d suggest that any control deck you are rocking packs an answer or two for cards that may return from the graveyard to haunt you.

You’ll notice that I have also conceded to using Ugin, the Spirit Dragon as another answer to the midrange menace. Midrange has always been the best matchup for my takes on control decks in Standard and it is no different now. I had a few issues at the beginning of the Den Protector Revolution, but control is the most adaptable archetype. It’s always been very easy to mold and shape your control deck to improve its chances against the most prominent decks only while losing a few percentage points to the more fringe decks. If your toughest matchup is Abzan anything, then you need to seriously consider using my version, or one like it, to up your chances.

Thoughtseize is good against anything that isn’t hyper-aggressive. It’s not great against a lot of decks, but it serves the purpose that I have given it in this version of Esper. The job of Thoughtseize is to be cast on turn two, remove a threat that an opponent will play next turn, and allow you to continue to answer on-curve from there with the more powerful control cards. Thoughtseize also acts as a wild card against control decks and allows you to protect Narset Transcendent in the first game. Your control mirror opponent only has six counterspells, which will spell disaster for them. I’ve discussed the control mirror extensively before, but the shortened version is to resolve your Planeswalker and protect her. We have eight counterspells and two Thoughtseizes in game one and that is plenty to make the magic happen. Decking is still a viable strategy game one, but anyone that reads my work or knows me in real life is aware of my smash-mouth play style. I like to defeat my opponents and do it swiftly, even with my control deck that has four creatures.

The reason why Narset Transcendent is such an easy card to win with is because your opponent these days is likely to only plays two or three copies of Hero’s Downfall! I will rant about this until I get booed off the stage, but please play four copies of Hero’s Downfall. It kills everything and it does it well. If you want flashy cards that do a ton of different things and create confusion for an opponent, then play one of the Den Protector midrange decks. Control is surgical, precise, and unforgiving. Cards like Dissolve, Hero’s Downfall, and Crux of Fate aren’t sexy, but they are effective and necessary. Play it well and you’ll be rewarded, but play it poorly and the wins will never come.

The current builds of Mono-Red against the current builds of control decks has the highest disparity than it has ever had in history. The lands are too slow, Ultimate Price is getting to the point of being an unplayable removal spell, and the curve is just too high. Magic Online testing has been a tad perilous because of the amount of sheer amount of red decks being piloted by kids getting into the online scene for the first time. Short of your opponents targeting themselves with Lightning Strike, the win percentage for game one is still close to zero for my take on Esper Dragons, and up to 50% for games two and three. That’s the best I got and the best it’ll be until new cards come out that help us hate them out.

The only suggestion I have for those who are preparing their decks for their local tournaments is to try Arashin Cleric or Nyx-Fleece Ram, but slamming that white source turn one and having it turn two is quite the gamble. The good news is that red is not a viable option for the big shots at an Invitational-type tournament because of its weakness versus everything that isn’t pure control. I can count the amount of Mono-Red decks I’ve played against on one hand in all of my Invitational success, so sleeve up control with confidence for the higher level tournaments. There will be instances of R/W or other decks that are aggressive, but for those who saw me battle Jim Davis last time around noticed that R/W and/or Jeskai is not as quick as Mono Red and, therefore, very beatable.

Now let’s move to Modern:

I’ve liked the setup of this deck from the launch in my article last time around to now. I loved U/W and discussed the pros and cons of adding black, but Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Lingering Souls are too strong to ignore. Tasigur is Tarmagoyf for all intents and purposes, and even better in a control shell thanks to that upside ability. The delve powerhouse doesn’t have the flashy power and toughness its green counterpart can get, however control just needs a consistently large and cheap body to drop in conjunction with other powerful board-controlling spells.

The Season Two Invitational will feature the first major Modern event in quite some time, with decks across the spectrum trying to abuse Collected Company. The weakness of Inquisition of Kozilek is apparent when gazing at that scary four-mana spell in the early turns. Luckily for control mages, Mana Leak and Cryptic Command can dispatch that spell with ease. I tried using Thoughtseize and it’s just not possible in Modern at this time. The lands are already beating you down to dangerous life totals, and we just don’t have the capability to go to fifteen life on turn one with a Thoughtseize. Unlike in Standard, this control deck beats the snot out of Mono-Red and other hyper aggressive decks like G/W Hexproof, Infect, and Affinity.

The true weakness of Esper in Modern are Tron variants, which can roll right over a control deck with zero Tectonic Edges. The useful colorless land was in the pilot version of this deck, and it was frankly not sustainable. The need for triple blue, double white, and enough black sources to guarantee early hand disruption prevents us from playing lands that don’t produce colored mana, and thus our ability to interact with Tron decks is minimal. Stony Silence out of the sideboard is a saving grace, but with only two copies that can be a bit of a reach. This matchup isn’t unwinnable by any stretch of the imagination, just the toughest to defeat.

Esper Control has all of the answers for the biggest problematic decks in the Modern format that I’m aware of, and I’ve been having great success in testing with it. My biggest suggestion would be to watch out for Blood Moon when playing anyone who could potentially cast it. Blood Moon and Boil aren’t secrets anymore in this day and age and must be played around appropriately. The two Islands and one Plains allow you to have defense game two against the devastating enchantment. Two copies of Celestial Purge must always be brought in against decks that could have Blood Moon and with Snapcaster Mage, you should be able to use them early and have them late. Outside of killing Blood Moon, Celestial Purge has been such a fantastic sideboard card in testing, dealing with Liliana of the Veil, Splinter Twin, red aggressive creatures, Tasigur, and so much more! It’s a card that I can’t imagine doing well without and I’m glad it’s back as one of the best options for a control mage’s sideboard.

Pulse of the Fields and Kor Firewalker are staples in this era to deal with the red menace and they do that well. It’s staggering how well hate cards perform in older formats compared to the utter lack of them in the most relevant field. Standard needs to have cards like these to give these slow, clunky control starts some vitality against the knuckleheads that all have a converted mana cost of one. I’m expecting one in the next set, but I’m just one hopeful control aficionado!

The Twin decks are a pretty good matchup for a control deck heavy removal, countermagic, and hand disruption. Combo doesn’t frighten me in Modern like it does in Legacy, due to their lack of consistency once you disrupt their plans. In Legacy, combo decks can easily defeat you after having their hand torn apart or several spells countered, but in Modern it’s not that easy. I dedicate a few cards to the combo matchup, but the maindeck is also very good against them. Decks like Twin, Ad Nauseam, and Amulet Bloom are easy to defeat due to their linear nature. Collected Company in the Abzan shell can defeat us because the infinite life combo is unnecessary for their victory to be achieved. The addition of black has sped up our control strategy in Modern, giving us a ton of pressure for very little mana. I even couldn’t help myself and added a fifth land that becomes a creature to add additional pressure later in the game. I love the proactive control game, and this deck gives you that with style.

Modern is still fresh and new coming off of a robust new set and bannings. There have been a few tournaments here or there, but the Season Two Invitational will really set the stage for GP Charlotte and those after. Control is criminally underplayed in Legacy, but it has a steady heartbeat in Modern. I truly believe that the Jeskai, U/W, or Esper Control decks have a shot against the field. The Modern control cards are powerful and the aggressive decks are easily beatable, a key formula for success. Cards like Supreme Verdict, Sphinx’s Revelation, Cryptic Command, Gideon Jura, and the removal package are primed for a breakout.

I hope I do well this weekend, but if not I have a Hulk Flash GP to look forward to. That’s the definition of win-win.