Sultai With Esper Alternatives

Our resident King of Control, Shaheen Soorani, returns with his latest builds in time for #SCGRegionals this weekend. He presents several decklists as battle-tested options for the aspiring control mage, each with their own advantages that might best mesh with your individual play style.

The Richmond Open has just passed and I enjoyed my first opportunity to use Languish against the aggressive hoard that has dominated since the fall of Esper Dragons. Dragonlord Ojutai and company did great things for me at the Season One Invitational and shortly thereafter, however the power of the Esper-colored Dragons has fallen drastically since. The effective reprinting of Eternal Witness in a powerful new context has put more pressure on control than any other card in Standard, throwing a huge wrench in our one-for-one plan.

Den Protector has three power, a fairly low cost, triggers a slew of Deathmist Raptors and also recoups a terrifying card that was answered a few turns back. The biggest headache that Den Protector creates is weakening Thoughtseize as an early catch-answer all to an aggressive threat. Control needs Thoughtseize in the current format in order to be successful with the abundance of lands that enter the battlefield tapped that we are forced to play. A common play for Esper, Sultai, or U/B Control is to play a tapped land on the first turn, then Thoughtseize and a second tapped land on turn two. The Thoughtseize serves as our disruption for whatever early play that the aggressive or midrange player may have planned for. In a perfect world we would play Clash of Wills as a fantastic turn-two answer to an opponent’s two- or three-mana threat, but the limited mana fixing available prevents that from being reality.

Sultai Control has provided me with the opportunity to have more lands enter the battlefield untapped, but asks for Satyr Wayfinder to hog the two-mana slot in order to do so. The name of the game is consistency, and adding green to our traditional control colors allows us to make our land drops while answering threats. I think that an Esper Control deck is viable, but due to the struggling manabase I’ve turned to the color combination that has mana fixing creatures and a land that produces all three of the deck’s colors. The Sultai Control list I’m providing here is nearly identical to the one I was working on in the past, because it has performed very well in testing these last few weeks. With that said, I wanted to provide some alternatives for all of my control players out there for the SCG Regionals and any other Standard tournament you may find yourself battling in soon.

I went into great detail on the power of Languish and the benefits of choosing Sultai Control as your weapon of choice in the new Standard previously. This list has only two differences from the one I unveiled a few weeks ago. The manabase needed a slight tweak because of the vital double-black requirement that Languish demands. You can falter a little here and there when trying to get to Hero’s Downfall mana, but when it comes to sweepers that luxury is never present. For this reason, one Yavimaya Coast has turned into a Llanowar Wastes. The only other change was the addition of yet another planeswalker.

Technically Nissa is a creature, but we all know the reason why she made the list. I have toyed with the idea of a 25th land in addition to the four Satyr Wayfinders, but my stubbornness led me to another way to assists me in hitting my land drops with a ton of upside. Nissa has seen some play in the G/R Devotion decks but she hasn’t hit the control world until now. All of Nissa’s abilities are relevant to a control deck, giving us card draw, threats, and an ultimate that kills immediately. Even if Nissa is dispatched early, we still net a land that is vital to our mission of hitting all our lands drops until Ugin, the Spirit Dragon arrives.

There is only one pesky, irritating detail, which is the presence of only two Forests. I have tried to twist the mana base in order to incorporate one more, but it’s simply not happening. Green is such a light splash in this deck, so the vast majority of sources must produce black or blue. This is the reason why I left out Haven of the Spirit Dragon and Radiant Fountain. That opens up a worst-case scenario of having the Forest-fetching elf but no Forest left in our deck. When that occurs, we can at least work on flipping her into planeswalker form, much to the detriment of our opponent. This two-Forest handicap also ties our hands as far as how many copies of Nissa we can effectively play. I don’t think I’d play more than one anyway, however with only two Forests that choice has been eliminated for us. With all of the delve card draw, Den Protectors, and card advantage, I can typically find any of the powerful one-ofs necessary to achieve victory. Nissa is a great addition to the Sultai team, and I’m excited to use her on the battlefield this weekend.

Now let’s take a look at some different builds of Esper:

The first alternative list contains zero Dragons and resembles the Esper Control list I had been packing when I narrowly lost to Harlan Firer in the finals during last year’s Season Four of the Open Series. It contains the essential removal, card draw, and planeswalker win conditions that we have all come to know and love. The big difference between this list and that one is the existence of a powerful four-mana sweeper in Languish.

The biggest weakness of Esper Control is its manabase, which I’ve discussed earlier in the article. Because of that weakness, we were forced to make impossible decisions in the early game in which we would either remove a threat to keep our life total afloat or play a tapped land to guarantee our End Hostilities would come on-time a few turns in the future. Languish doesn’t dish out the punishment that Crux of Fate or End Hostilities did to its controller, forcing us to sideboard out board wipes against aggressive decks. The notion that control was dead really came to light when the Wrath of God effect was unplayable against the decks that play creatures, but that reality has been pushed aside at least for now. Languish doesn’t get sideboarded out against any creature deck and we even get to leave in a few against decks that pack Dragonlord Ojutai, which gives this control strategy some real power against much of the metagame.

So why don’t I play this deck instead? I am still skeptical about our chances against Mono-Red and G/R Devotion because of their raw speed. Feed the Clan has been so much better than advertised, which gives green the upper hand against any aggressive strategy. The synergy between a one-mana Tasigur, the Golden Fang and a Feed the Clan follow-up is simply too powerful. Sultai Control has given me the tools to finally defeat aggro, but for all of you Esper fanatics I added four Arashin Cleric in the sideboard to assist in that goal. I’m not sure if it’s better than Nyx-Fleece Ram right now, but the Cleric used to be much better. Now with four Languish, the five toughness of the Sheep may be more synergistic and effective.

Even though our mass removal is cheaper and casting it on time is easier, I still foresee some games lost due to drawing too many Temples. The Esper Control matchup against the control mirror, midrange decks, and fringe decks is superb though. A lot of decks haven’t changed that drastically from the last time I sleeved this deck up, and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion remains a fantastic answer to Deathmist Raptor strategies. This take on Esper Control still has the feel of a combo deck, setting up the Elspeth, Sun’s Champion into Sorin, Solemn Visitor one-two punch. The life gained in just one attack often is enough to lock the game up and there is a certain appeal to having a combo-like finish in Standard.

My emphasis on the importance of Thoughtseize is not exaggerated. Esper Control has four in the maindeck in order to make up for all of that lost tempo in the early turns. This deck accepts its inability to have mana open on turn two to interact and still make all of its land drops in an untapped fashion. The average early turns are similar to Sultai Control with a Temple, Thoughtseize, and a second Temple. The major difference is that Sultai Control has the option on turn two to instead play a Satyr Wayfinder and replace the untapped land you used to cast the little fella. Esper Control can’t imitate that series of plays, so instead we peel the problematic card that will resolve the next turn unless we stopped it right there and then. A glaring issue with this strategy is that sometimes the early threats in our opponent’s hand are abundant, in which case we find ourselves switching to a-Languish-and-a-prayer mode. The sideboard provides cheaper spells to balance out the high maindeck curve and a creature package that survives Languish and takes advantage to the lack of removal most opponents will have for games two and three. If you want a tap-out, planeswalker-based control deck, this is the list for you. If Sultai Control doesn’t work out for me this weekend, you better believe I’ll give this a shot soon after. Whatever deck you choose, make sure there are multiple copies of Languish between the main and board.

This deck is much more familiar to those who have been dedicated control players since the release of Dragons of Tarkir. It felt like just yesterday when I bought my set of Dragonlord Ojutais for twenty bucks and threw together a usual Soorani special. The worst thing that could happen happened, when the pros adopted and improved that list and brought Esper to Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir. My most successful brews have been those that I and my loyal readers pilot under the radar, Top Eighting an event here or winning an event there. Once the Dragon version of Esper became the deck to beat, it lost all of its surprise and some of its power, and eventually it was hated out significantly. The popularity of Deathmist Raptor also hurt the Dragon strategy, making it very difficult to keep the recursion rate down and our life total high. Dragonlord Ojutai and Silumgar, the Drifting Death can block most threats effectively, however Deathtouch is a big issue when our threats don’t return from the graveyard easily and theirs do. Deathmist Raptor and Den Protector are still all over the place, but the G/R Devotion decks and Abzan Aggro/midrange builds that leave out the morphs altogether have resurfaced in recent weeks to dominate the Abzan Control portion of the metagame. Those decks are beatable with both of these versions of Esper, so I can see each being viable to any talented mage out there. It really boils down to play style… and if you want pesky creatures, planeswalkers only, or some green mana assistance when defending control’s honor in your tournament of choice. You can watch below as I went into further detail of the power of green in control in a deck tech with Ken Crocker in The Sideboard during the Open Series in Richmond for additional insight.

I finished in the Top 64 of the Richmond Open and could have done a tad better, but Sultai is much more difficult than expected to perfectly execute with. Dylan Donegan actually watched one of my games against G/R Devotion and mentioned to me afterwards that he would have definitely lost the game that I ended up winning. The decisions were tough and a single different line would have led to defeat, but as the tournament progressed I improved my play noticeably. The Esper strategies are a bit more cut-and-dry with large Dragon finishers, so if that fits your play style then I completely understand. Try these out, my friends, and let me know which you prefer and why.

Good luck!