The Industry Standard: Winning Indy With Esper

Harry Corvese took down the Standard Open in Indianapolis this weekend, piloting Esper Control through ten rounds of swiss and then a grueling Top Eight ending with a mirror match in the finals. Read about how he triumphed here!

Hello Readers!

My name is Harry Corvese, and this past weekend I was fortunate enough to win the Standard Open in Indianapolis. Now let’s break it down.

The Deck

I chose this deck in the wake of the Pro Tour because it seemed like a good starting point to beating the breakout deck of that tournament, Mono-Blue Devotion. My first event with the deck was last weekend at a local tournament in Ohio, with a little over 50 people; I placed fourth. I loved the feel of the deck, because what’s better than sitting behind a wall of cards? It was an easy decision to run it back this past weekend in Indy.

Let’s take a look at the cards.


4 Supreme Verdict

4 Jace, Architect of Thought

These are the staples of the deck and provide the foundation for its plan. Kill all of the opponent’s creatures and draw yourself some cards so you are able to rinse and repeat until you find a way to win the game. Jace’s +1 ability does a great job of forcing your opponent to commit more creatures to the board, only to have them Supreme Verdict away. It really is a vicious cycle.

4 Detention Sphere

3 Hero’s Downfall

2 Thoughtseize

3 Dissolve

What’s that you say? Sometimes your opponent is not interested in beating you with creatures? Enter: situational one-for-one removal.

Four copies of Detention Sphere are essential right now due to the number of problem permanents that are being played across a wide range of opposing archetypes. I define “problem permanents” as non-creature permanents that are repeat sources of value. Some examples would be Underworld Connections, Thassa, God of the Sea, Assemble the Legion, and every Planeswalker ever.

Three copies of Hero’s Downfall are included for versatility as they deal with opposing problems. It’s very nice to have a card that fits into the mana curve underneath Supreme Verdict. Hero’s Downfall keeps you alive in the early game while you set up your sweeper. In addition, taking out an opposing planeswalker at instant speed is both a powerful use of resources and helps to ease the workload put on Detention Sphere. At its worst, killing a Mutavault isn’t bad either. While it is easy to limit the trouble the manland can cause with cards like Jace, Architect of Thought or Azorious Charm, an unchecked repeated jabbing from Mutavault can really tip the scales. Three Hero’s Downfall was the correct number in this build because four Detention Spheres does create a logjam at the three mana slot.

Sometimes problems can come in the form of spells, value or otherwise, and that is where Thoughtseize and Dissolve do their work. Thoughtseize in small amounts can do a lot of damage to an opponent’s early game, give you perfect information to work with, and it is excellent at helping force through your most important haymakers in control mirrors. Two is the right number, however, because they get worse in multiples against every matchup except for the Esper mirror.

Dissolve is the best counterspell currently available and plays a lot like a catch-all in all matchups… except for the Esper mirror, where they should be used almost exclusively to deal with Aetherling in Game One.

4 Azorious Charm

There has been some debate about how many Azorious Charms is the correct number to play, and after multiple configurations I would like to join the “four” team. The ability to cycle for land drops in the early game is a real necessity in a world without Think Twice. Additionally, with the lack of maindeck two-mana removal, having a two-mana spell that interacts with 99% of creatures proved to be very important.

1 Syncopate

1 Merciless Eviction

Ahh, the singletons.

With two slots left in my maindeck to fill, the name of the game was versatility. Syncopate was useful as an additional piece of countermagic that could also potentially be a two-drop removal spell. This is very good when on the draw against opposing three-mana spells like Underworld Connections, Thassa, or Domri Rade. It may seem like Syncopate can do it all, but I will caution that it takes a very specific gamestate to get a lot of value out of the card. This can be easy enough to sculpt with one copy in your deck, but once that number increases Syncopate can become very clunky and potentially dead.

The Merciless Eviction was the last card added to the deck mostly on the basis of how good Supreme Verdict is right now. Having a fifth copy seemed like it couldn’t be bad and all the extra modes satisfied my need to be versatile. From the Hudson River to the Nile, I’d run the card again to the very last mile.

Win Conditions:

4 Sphinx’s Revelation

2 Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

1 Aetherling

By far the number-one way to win a game with Esper Control is to chain together Sphinx’s Revelations. Not only does the card bury your opponent under a mountain of card advantage but the lifegain can give you a cushion that requires at least one to two or more full turns of combat for your opponent to make up. Sphinx’s Revelation is the reason to play the deck, and it is still one of the best cards in Standard.

If we didn’t have access to a card like Elspeth, Sun’s Champion, there might be a reason to run more than one Aetherling in our deck. As it stands currently, though, Elspeth is a six-mana win condition (the perfect number for control). It has an immediate impact on most boards and can get out of control almost instantly against any deck not packing Hero’s Downfall or Detention Sphere. As long as control is viable in Standard, I see two copies of Elspeth being a staple for a very long time.

It is very possible that if we didn’t have Detention Sphere and Hero’s Downfall in the format there might not be any need for Aetherling at all. It does cost seven mana (at least, if you want to untap with your Shapeshifter in one piece) and usually isn’t the most impressive addition to the board the turn it’s cast. That said, it is the best at what it does (killing people with no mercy), and only Pithing Needle can stop it once it has resolved (as far as reasonably-playable cards are considered).


I decided to go up to 27 lands in this build for the following reasons:

  • There are 4 Sphinx’s Revelations, due mostly to the breakout of Mono Black Devotion.
  • With Merciless Eviction and the extra Sphinx’s Revelation, the number of six-mana spells has gone up.
  • I decided on zero copies of Divination due to its low impact.
  • An extra basic land is nice to hit your spells on time without taking too much damage from shocklands.

If you want to go back down to 26 lands, one Plains would be the first land cut from the deck, but I do not recommend skimping on the mana.


4 Doom Blade

With the increased presence of Mono Black Devotion in the environment, I was very unsatisfied with Doom Blade and Ultimate Price in the maindeck. However, when it came time to find sideboard cards against aggressive decks or green decks, Doom Blade was clearly the best option and it was an easy choice to play as many as I am allowed.

3 Pithing Needle

I once set out to write an article entirely based on the merits of Pithing Needle as a Magic card before discovering that I could only fill about 1,000 words. That said, it still has a soft spot in my heart and there has never been a better time for its inclusion in sideboards than now. Pithing Needle acts as a pseudo-Oblivion Ring against a very large percentage of problem permanents. It handles such excellent cards as:

Underworld Connections, Erebos, God of the Dead, Whip of Erebos, Mutavault, Pack Rat, Garruk, Caller of Beasts, Xenagos, the Reveler, Domri Rade, and Aetherling.

2 Blood Baron of Vizkopa

These are mostly for the Mono Black Devotion decks, however, I have found myself boarding them in against Esper Control (which can lead to a very interesting will-they/won’t-they game involving Supreme Verdict post-board), and sometimes against white-based aggressive decks.

2 Negate

Mostly for the control mirrors, but I sometimes bring one in against Mono Black Devotion and G/R Monsters to handle their non-creature permanents.

1 Gainsay

This is better than the third Negate because it can be brought in against Mono Blue Devotion and also is a hard counter for Aetherling in control mirrors.

1 Thoughtseize

This card is only brought in for control mirrors to help gain information and start off a counterspell war at the right time over your Aetherling. I do not bring it in against the Mono Black Devotion deck and have taken to cutting the maindeck copies in that matchup as well. Simply put, I cannot afford to try to fight Mono Black Devotion on that level. I would much rather try to fight them with a more reactive plan and beat their discard with my draw steps and two-for-ones, which are better protected from their hand disruption.

1 Aetherling

The only thing to fight over in an Esper control mirror in Game One is Aetherling. With only one maindeck copy, losing that fight will lose you the game. This copy in the board gives you a backup plan for subsequent games.

1 Trading Post

This card serves as a value machine against some of the more creative problems the current format can present. Against Mono Black Devotion, it helps to keep you out of range against Grey Merchant of Asphodel while also providing you a mini-Forcefield that can protect you from Desecration Demon and various attacks from Mutavault and other ground creatures. When combined with Pithing Needles, it can serve as a reset button for what you chose to name as well as a slower card drawing engine. I have also found myself boarding it in against decks with a lot of burn and also to hedge against Burning Earth.

The Tournament

Friday night, Shaheen Soorani, my attorney David Bauer and I were having quite the time at a restaurant next to our hotel, eating and drinking and making fun of each other for our performances at the Invitational that day. With over $40,000 in lifetime Open Series winnings between us (I fall into a distant third place in this company), it was laughable to think that not a single one of us made Day Two.

Upon arriving back at the hotel room, Shaheen made some changes to his U/W/R control list (chiefly switching out some of his lands for ones that could cast his spells), David complained about the bar in the middle of the cot we were making him sleep on (hey, better than the floor, right?), and I made some winning changes to a list that I was very unsatisfied with at that point (I have never been so mad at Ultimate Price ever in my life).

The next day was a blur of redemption for us all. After eight rounds we were all 7-1 and staring into the face of one of the best feelings in competitive Magic, the “Friend Top 8”. However, 699 people had shown up for battle and after a two-round meatgrinder to end the swiss rounds my attorney sat atop the standings with 27 points, I squeaked into eighth place with 25, and the Expensive Sorcery Master was out in thirteenth place with only 24. The partial “Friend Top 8” was still on, even if only for a short time as David and I had to meet in the quarterfinals.

In front of only a few spectators and staff, the quarterfinals went to three games and can be seen here:

The coverage begins right at 10:15:00 and the match continues on until approximately 11:10:00, when I topdecked a Blood Baron of Vizkopa to steal a game that looked to everyone in the world to be unwinnable. It was an absolutely epic topdeck and easily the best draw step of my entire weekend. Pay special attention to 11:08:00-11:09:00 if you want to see a topdeck so powerful it actually knocks out half the lights in the room when I drop it onto the table…

Further proof that this game we play is Magic indeed.

Seriously, go watch it. Everyone. Even you. I have never seen anything like it before in my life and I have well over a decade into this game.

Pretty insane right? Can we all agree on the connectedness of the universe now?

The Semifinals and the Finals were covered in great detail by Reuben Bresler on the coverage page with the Finals turning into an 110-minute twelve-round slugfest with an incredible amount of back-and-forth. The details of this Esper mirror are too involved to be specific about here but if there is demand I would be happy to go over that match in a future article or video. The video coverage can be found here and includes such hits as “counter-war over Thoughtseize”, “Elspeth on Elspeth crime”, “Shockland Bluffs”, and “win via Jace, Memory Adept”.


Going Forward

For upcoming Standard events, Esper Control needs to stay one step ahead of an environment that has already seen it have strong success already. I anticipate the blowback to come in the form of aggressive decks with much more pressure at the one- and two-drop slots on the curve, Ratchet Bomb out of the sideboard of Mono Black Devotion decks, and more-informed, better-prepared opponents in Esper mirrors.

I look forward to answering your questions/feedback in the comments below!