With Grand Prix Cincinnati being Standard as well as the StarCityGames.com Invitational coming up next weekend in Charlotte, I’ve been thinking a lot about which deck I want to play. Lately I’ve been grinding with Esper Control on Magic Online, but I’m not quite sold on it yet. It currently just feels like a collection of powerful cards that are all fairly strong in a number of matchups as opposed to a collection of spells designed to create synergy.
This usually turns me away from playing a deck, but the power level of some of these cards is quite surreal. You can win many games without making too many tough decisions, mostly because of how powerful Supreme Verdict, Detention Sphere, and Sphinx’s Revelation are at the moment. All three of those spells help contain or overwhelm just about anything your opponent can try to do, whether it’s flood the board with creatures, cast powerful planeswalkers, or just try to grind out card advantage with stuff like Underworld Connections.
I don’t actually know why I win with Esper Control, but I do know that I’ve won quite a bit with it. William “Huey” Jensen won a Premier Event on Magic Online a few weeks ago with this deck, and I’ve been hooked ever since, tweaking and changing sideboard slots here and there while looking for a list that I genuinely enjoy playing. This is what I’m currently settled on for the Grand Prix this weekend.
The maindeck hasn’t changed from Huey’s original list. I think it’s stellar, and the subtlety of using scry lands to fix your mana is genius. The full twelve are here, allowing us to easily splash another color without much trouble at all. In the thirty or so matches I’ve played with the deck, there have only been a handful of times where I haven’t been able to cast black spells when I wanted to.
This is almost completely thanks to the scry from the lands.
Scry Me A River
There are so many land-light or land-heavy hands you can keep strictly because of how powerful the Temples are in the early turns of the game. If you need to draw spells or more lands, the Temples can fix either problem. By playing 27 lands with twelve of them Temples, you will have more opening hands that have five or so lands in them, but that isn’t a big deal. The scry triggers will translate into card selection, keeping you from flooding out too much for most of the game.
This deck revolves around hitting land drops early in the game so that your mid and late game spells can come online at the right time. If you miss your fourth land drop and can’t cast Supreme Verdict, you will almost always die to the aggressive decks in this format. If you conveniently put an extra Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or Sphinx’s Revelation on the bottom of your deck so that you draw into the cards you actually need at the right time, it almost feels like you’re getting to draw actual cards with your scry triggers.
In a lot of ways scry is just a different kind of card advantage. In many situations certain cards are irrelevant (or dead cards). When you’re able to put them away for now, perhaps even finding them at a later point via Jace, Architect of Thought or Sphinx’s Revelation, then you’re not quite “drawing cards,” but it’s just about the next best thing. Card selection is a powerful tool that is often utilized in Legacy with cards like Brainstorm and Ponder. You aren’t physically gaining a two-for-one with your spell, but you’re effectively cashing in dead cards for fresh ones. The scry mechanic is powerful because it affects the game similarly to cards like Brainstorm. The effect is less noticeable, but that is attributable to the power level of Brainstorm and not a reflection of the Temples themselves.
If you’ve ever played with Merfolk Looter before, you know just how important it can be to cash in dead cards for ones that can actually impact the game. I know I’m putting a lot of emphasis on how good the Temples are, but I don’t think you can actually understand just how good playing this many of them is until you’ve done it yourself. Yes, they will occasionally screw you over by coming into play tapped, but there is no greater feeling for a control deck than being able to consistently hit land drops early and then change gears in the middle of the game to dig for specific answers or win conditions.
So far with the deck I’ve noticed a few problems, but we can change the list to help us beat certain types of strategies. For example, decks that feature Boros Charm are generally quite strong against us for multiple reasons. If they’re flooding the board, sometimes not being able to cast Supreme Verdict until turn 5 is a bummer. This can give them the extra turn to hold up Boros Charm to protect their team. The four damage from Boros Charm is quite relevant as well, especially so when combined with the drowning sensation that comes with getting hit with a Skullcrack or two.
The problem for this kind of slower control deck is that you have to choose to fight either creatures or spells. Sideboarding into a removal-heavy deck that’s light on counterspells isn’t all that difficult. You get to kill every creature they throw your way and eventually refill your hand with Sphinx’s Revelation or Jace, Architect of Thought.
However, burn decks utilize threats in the early turns of the game, forcing you to expend time and resources fighting them, only to finish you off in a flurry of fire. It’s difficult to defend on both of these levels, though not impossible.
The red aggressive decks, much like the one that conquered the Standard Open in Seattle, can also sideboard in a way that makes either your counterspells or your removal spells much worse. If you aren’t aware of exactly how they’ve configured their deck after sideboard, you can expect to get hammered on the front you’re not prepared for. Hedging and leaving in cards like Dissolve is an easy way to lose to Firedrinker Satyr, but loading up on removal spells means you’re going to get burned out of the game. It’s a difficult matchup to be sure and one that I hope to dodge at the Grand Prix this weekend.
Penny For Your Thoughts(eize)
The control mirror can be a nuisance because of how long the games can take. Both players have access to a plethora of answers without all that many threats. A resolved Aetherling with one or two mana up to blink it is usually game over, but that isn’t always the case if you can stall them out for multiple turns via Azorius Charm and Doom Blade while you make Elspeth, Sun’s Champion into a lethal threat.
Early in the game it’s often unwise to tap out for a big threat because it will leave you vulnerable to their counterspells and allow them to resolve their big threat. Even if you don’t have a counterspell in hand in the early turns of the game, it’s usually incorrect to jam your spells, as your opponent will undoubtedly expect the same thing to happen to them. Even when there’s a clear window to resolve an Elspeth, Sun’s Champion or Jace, Architect of Thought, there are times when you will eventually lose to their Aetherling if you give them a window to resolve it.
Figuring out when it’s correct to tap out is tricky, but that’s where our major weapon in the matchup shines:
Not many control decks are playing Thoughtseize at the moment, but it’s the one card you can count on to give them headaches. It doesn’t really matter which turn you cast it because it’s fantastic early and late in the game. Taking away a counterspell or one of their few threats is an easy path to victory, but figuring out which card to take is obviously situational. At times taking Sphinx’s Revelation will buy you a lot of free time, but seeing a card like Elixir of Immortality in their hand could end the game on the spot since they will rarely have more than two actual win conditions in their entire deck!
While it’s no mystery why Thoughtseize is good, it’s actually great in a number of other matchups that are traditionally thought to be difficult for control strategies. For example, Monsters is sometimes tough to beat thanks to their steady stream of gigantic and tough to beat threats. Domri Rade threatens to draw them enough cards to ignore Supreme Verdict, while Xenagos of all varieties provide a lot of pressure without the fear of a sweeper. When combined with Stormbreath Dragon, these cards can be problematic.
Thoughtseize helps contain these types of cards while also giving you valuable information about how the rest of the game should play out. If you can take a card that will disrupt their tempo, it can often buy you enough time to resolve a Sphinx’s Revelation or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion to take control of the game. However, just snagging an annoyance like Domri Rade takes a lot of pressure off your copies of Detention Sphere to do all the clean-up work against their planeswalkers.
Doom Blade is also a boon in this matchup, which is one of the reasons why it’s in the deck in the first place. Obviously it could be switched out for something like Ultimate Price to give you better removal against Mono-Black Devotion, but it just depends on what you think you’ll face the most. Boros Reckoner, Burning-Tree Emissary, Frostburn Weird, and the like are all commonly played beasts that don’t die to Ultimate Price, but the real kicker is that Doom Blade can kill Mutavault, which is a huge problem for Esper control. When you’re so reliant on Supreme Verdict to do the heavy lifting, you need your spot removal spells to take care of the rest. Doom Blade gets the nod in this list almost specifically for that reason. It kills both Stormbreath Dragon and Mutavault, which can’t be said for any other removal spell at your disposal.
If you’re able to contain the threats out of Monsters that can supply them with real card advantage, then your spot removal spells become absurd. The versions that splash black for Rakdos’s Return and Dreadbore can put a little more pressure on your counterspells to be good, but the matchup plays out mostly the same as the G/R one. Having access to Thoughtseize allows you to control what direction the game goes and also gives you valuable information (like whether or not to tap out when your opponent has Rakdos’s Return).
Your License To Ill Has Been Revoked
With people bringing so many dynamic threats to the table, having an answer for everything is tough. That’s one of the reasons why Detention Sphere is so ridiculously good at the moment and why decks like Mono-Blue Devotion are splashing white for it.
But playing four copies of Detention Sphere can only get you so far. Decks like Mono-Black Devotion and Mono-Blue Devotion have a variety of cards that need to be dealt with, and sometimes drawing only one Detention Sphere won’t be enough. This is why our sideboard needs to be able to contain the rest of their threats, whether it’s creatures or enchantments!
Underworld Connections and Erebos, God of the Dead are two enchantments from Mono-Black Devotion that need to be answered. If you let them stick around, they will steadily gain the opponent card advantage while their copies of Thoughtseize and Duress pick your hand apart. While these are the only two realistic targets for Revoke Existence in the matchup, it’s key to have them at the ready. Your opponent will be digging through their deck looking for these cards, and you in turn should be digging for Revoke Existence or Detention Sphere to put them away.
Mono-Blue Devotion also has a few absurd threats that don’t die to Supreme Verdict, and you need to kill them or they’ll definitely kill you. Revoke Existence is crucial in this matchup, as it deals with Thassa, God of the Sea; Ephara, God of the Polis; Bident of Thassa; and even their copies of Detention Sphere that lock down your planeswalkers.
The downside to having Revoke Existence in your deck against Mono-Blue Devotion is that they will occasionally have draws that don’t feature any of these cards. After all, answers are generally worse than threats. But the sweet side of this argument is that Supreme Verdict just puts them into the ground. The enchantments listed above are the only cards in their deck (besides Mutavault) that don’t die to Supreme Verdict, so you should prioritize both of those cards (along with Detention Sphere obviously) when you’re using your lands to scry.
One of the more appealing reasons to play this version of Esper Control is that you have a solid matchup against anyone running Cloudfin Raptor. There will be occasional games that are stolen away from you thanks to the overall strength of their deck, but I can assure you that there is no start I would rather see from an opponent than Island, Judge’s Familiar. Jace, Architect of Thought puts so much pressure on them to extend their board, which ultimately causes them to fold to Supreme Verdict.
The dynamic changes slightly when they have access to Ephara, God of the Polis and Detention Sphere, two cards that are quite good against Esper Control. However, Detention Sphere doesn’t always have targets and plays out similarly to the older versions using Cyclonic Rift. The games where you resolve an Elspeth. Sun’s Champion and lose have risen a bit, but Elspeth is just a means to an end, not something you should be shooting for. At the very least be aware that Elspeth is no longer an actual trump to Master of Waves, as they can just Sphere away your tokens and kill Elspeth or you!
Revoke Existence is just a solid card at the moment and one that I’ve been toying around with in the maindeck as a singleton. I’m a huge proponent of playing high impact one-ofs in a deck that plays Sphinx’s Revelation because you’re going to see more of your deck each game. Having a way to unlock your last Elspeth, Sun’s Champion from an opposing Detention Sphere could be the difference between winning and losing a control mirror. The fact that so many strategies play enchantments at the moment means that Revoke Existence will rarely be a dead card, as even Monsters decks are now sporting the full set of Courser of Kruphix (though it’s not a real threat against your deck).
There May Be Blood (Barons)
Blood Baron of Vizkopa is not a subtle card. It has protection from two colors, lifelink, and a random ability that rarely comes up. As such, it’s a perfect candidate for the sideboard against decks that play black or white.
However, I’ve found that this type of deck is reliant on using Supreme Verdict in a number of matchups where Blood Baron is actually good, meaning it isn’t nearly as solid as it could be. There are times where cards like Blood Baron are fantastic for maindeck consideration, but I don’t think right now is one of those times. There are far too many Mizzium Mortars and blue creatures running around for it to do all that much good, and it isn’t nearly as reliable as it should be against black decks thanks to Devour Flesh.
I don’t even know if I should be playing Blood Baron of Vizkopa in the sideboard, and it’s the first card I cut when I’m making room to try out a new toy. Matches against black decks tend to be grindy affairs that usually end with you casting a Sphinx’s Revelation for a billion or them overwhelming your resources with discard spells. Either way, Blood Baron of Vizkopa is often a liability. All of them are going to have access to some number of Lifebane Zombie after sideboard simply because it’s a powerful threat for a mere three mana, allowing them to put pressure on you before you can resolve any of your relevant spells (not to mention it attacks though Elspeth, Sun’s Champion).
Even against white aggressive decks Blood Baron of Vizkopa isn’t the be all and end all. There are games where you cast Blood Baron and expect to win quickly but are foiled by them swarming the board. This usually ends with you using a Supreme Verdict to kill everything (including your own Blood Baron) or them killing you with Brave the Elements while you hold back on defense.
While Blood Baron of Vizkopa is obviously a strong Magic card, I’m not positive that this is the time or place for him to shine. I would much rather play Blood Baron in a deck that doesn’t use Supreme Verdict, such as Esper or B/W Midrange. When combined with efficient spot removal, the life swings from Blood Baron allow you to race much more efficiently. Against other control decks they also have to use a Supreme Verdict or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion to kill it.
With Grand Prix Cincinnati in just a few short days, I’m leaning toward Esper Control, but it’s not set in stone. I know that I can do reasonably well at the tournament with the deck, but I would love to hear what you have to say about the Standard format. I know that Mono-Black Devotion is “my jam” since I’ve put it to good use at a number of tournaments over the past few months, but I’m just not feeling it anymore. So many decks have an answer to Pack Rat now, including the mirror—even blue devotion decks have Detention Sphere!
If you have a sweet brew you think I should try out, let me know. I’ll do my best to look over every one of them, and if I find something I like, maybe (just maybe) I’ll write about it next week. I love finding new strategies to tinker with. So post away, brave souls. I’d love to pick your brain!