The Return Of Esper Control

Shaheen Soorani sees an opening for Esper Control in Modern, so of course he’s going to take it! Get his latest list, piloted to considerable Magic Online success, and his classic Esper Professor insight!

With Standard being far into the horizon of my tournament schedule, I had time to fully delve into Modern! It appears that doomsday isn’t upon the lovers of the format and that Jace, the Mind Sculptor was a perfectly reasonable card to be added. This level of comfort is still fragile because we don’t have enough results from high-level events to make that determination with 100% certainty yet.

I can tell you all, after extensive playtesting these last few weeks, that the performance of Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks has not even come close to their full potential. Most lists being played are still at two copies in the maindeck, as opposed to the three I suggested in my initial U/W Control list. Even when I listed three, I wrote about probably needing to add the fourth.

I did a good portion of my initial testing outside of Magic Online Leagues, because I fear that we, the community, put too much worth into a 5-0 record. I am just as guilty as the next competitor with this, scouring through the daily lists, looking for a starting point across all formats. I knew the flaws involved in this process, as I battled Merfolk, Zoo, and Scapeshift as three of my five wins with U/W Control prior to the release of our unlawfully detained planeswalker.

That flaw, playing against decks that you’d rarely see at a competitive tournament, produces data that won’t lead me to correct deckbuilding decisions. I’ve admitted on multiple occasions that I am very results-oriented, and I’ll butcher a few sideboard slots to ensure that the Elves player doesn’t get me again! I have gotten better about this in recent years and test against the five or six top-tier decks of the format before unleashing the list in Leagues.

I wanted to start with this to help paint the picture of the list you’re about to see. Humorously, it’s a 5-0 list from Magic Online. I embarked in my first league with Esper Control in Modern and went 5-0, but I was much more excited than I was the time before when I got it done with U/W Control because I played against five “real decks” and won decisively against each one. Burn, Humans, Grixis Control, U/W Control, and Jund were all victims of Lingering Souls on the Esper maiden voyage.

But I don’t want to mislead you fine magicians; Jund is not the pushover it used to be, and there are some builds that are tougher than others. I believe we must make a few modifications to this list to be a consistent victor over blue’s mortal enemy of old.

The first step to fine-tuning a deck that you think has high potential is to ask a skilled friend for advice.

After that doesn’t work, hit the testing gauntlet and determine if the matchup in question can be improved without derailing others. The answer after further examination is, yes, the Jund matchup can be improved with minimal changes. Game 1 has been amazing for me against Bloodbraid Elf decks due to my strong main deck against midrange/creature strategies combined with their dead cards.

Unlike in Standard, dead cards in Modern are quite different, however. I call them duds, but, they are still usable. Lightning Bolt from the Jund opponent doesn’t scare me and is easy to play around. Jace, the Mind Sculptor loves to enter the battlefield with an immediate +2 activation against them and chuckles in the face of most of their creatures with a simple Path to Exile as backup. This strategy has led me to a plethora of Game 1 victories; however, the matchup becomes much harder post-sideboard.

I mentioned that the sideboarded games can be tough and that’s because of their hand disruption. Countermagic isn’t great against their deck on the draw in sideboard games, and often I’m left with the wrong interaction for their threats after a Turn 1 Thoughtseize.

I have found that it’s best to fight fire with fire in this scenario. There are two copies of Thoughtseize in the sideboard that both come in against the Jund foe, but a third copy needs to be there. The issue is that Collective Brutality does not do the job against enemy planeswalker decks or decks that contain Bloodbraid Elf.

When hand disruption is diversified without being effective against the same decks, then sideboard slots are taxed. Collective Brutality is an all-star against Burn and can’t be cut from this lineup. It is also great against fringe combo decks, so that leads me to look at a combo hate card to cut from the sideboard.

I battled with Negate in U/W Control, but in the maindeck. The one copy of Mana Leak is okay, but it can be a dud late in the game. I championed Logic Knot back in the day as the end-all, be-all Modern countermagic, and I stand firmly behind that decision six years later.

The Logic Knot count has been perfect, so that Mana Leak turns into Negate for me. I’ve found that the cards that beat me in my losses typically aren’t creatures. With four copies of Path to Exile and Fatal Push, two copies of Supreme Verdict, and a bunch of dig to get to them all, creatures are the least of my concerns.

Negate has targets in every matchup and prevents Liliana of the Veil from entering late and causing havoc. Very rarely am I countering a creature from Jund unless it’s Dark Confidant. Dark Confidant was the driving force for me to abandon a Plains-and-Island-only strategy and return Swamps to the mix.

I know you’re all shocked that I defaulted to Esper for my control flavor of choice, but Jeskai Control isn’t in the best spot right now. Lightning Bolt is a great card for many reasons; however, Fatal Push is the real deal in Modern for control players. The number of creatures that Fatal Push can’t kill in the top tier of the format is such a small percentage, I can’t wrap my mind around calculating it. I’ve been attacked by a Gurmag Angler a few turns to remind myself that Fatal Push isn’t broken, but then I used one of my other solid removal spells to put that concern to rest.

Black also provides us with the all-powerful Lingering Souls, which has been absent from control decks in Modern for too long. Before Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Lingering Souls didn’t really have a home in blue decks. Attacking never got the job done in this fast-paced format, but blocking sure does. This one card provides so much defense that our “planeswalker survival” percentage has skyrocketed.

There are few bad curves in this Esper Control deck, leading off with cantrips, removal, blockers, and the blue champion of the world. Four copies of Jace, the Mind Sculptor was, and is, the correct amount to play in any Modern control deck. The card must be drawn, survive hand disruption, and reproduce when slain on the battlefield on its first turn. The deck can be successful with fewer copies; however, the odds are not in your favor.

Modern feels very close to Legacy in that your opening hand is rarely guiding you to victory when playing these control decks. Resources clash, allies fall, and the draw step gets you right back into the fight. I would want to have four copies of the best card in my deck, the card that can close games while replenishing those used spells from earlier.

Outside of a third Thoughtseize, I would consider adding a second Celestial Purge to the sideboard. This card is another winner against Jund, hits Blood Moon, exiles threats from Burn, and prevents a depressing Path to Exile on their Turn 2 Dark Confidant. With three copies of Snapcaster Mage, cards like Celestial Purge are even better.

The least effective cards in the sideboard that can be replaced are Vendilion Clique and Notion Thief. Vendilion Clique is a more controversial cut, but Lingering Souls takes a portion of its thunder against most decks. The hand disruption is the biggest cause for playing it, but three Thoughtseize, two Collective Brutality, and countermagic all serve a similar role. I find myself having better things to do on three mana and have been unimpressed with the flash Faerie recently. I think Vendilion Clique is a fantastic card and powerful in U/W Control, but is lackluster when black spells are available.

Notion Thief is the card I know most of you will cut. I’ve personally dropped Vendilion Clique, but I know many of you don’t believe in the power of card stealing. I’m always good for a “get ya” card in my sideboard, and Notion Thief fills that role. There will be Jace, the Mind Sculptor mirrors, and I want to dedicate one sideboard slot to a card that absolutely destroys any player who thought they were going to Brainstorm but will instead lose instantly.

Notion Thief also has hidden value. It flashes in with three power like our Vendilion Clique friend, prevents use of cantrips, and punishes anyone who went light on the removal in a post-sideboard game. This sideboard cut won’t offend me when I see you all rock the list in competitive tournaments, so don’t let that influence your decision. One of these two flash creatures needs to go, and that will improve the Jund matchup further.

The Negate takes place of the Mana Leak, but the rest of the maindeck stays intact for me. I rarely feel good about the first list I take from paper to Magic Online; however, this setup feels great. The one copy of Engineered Explosives takes care of problematic permanents that sneak past the removal; the sheer amount of spot removal has been instrumental in keeping Jace, the Mind Sculptor safe; and Gideon Jura has been the shield at the end of the curve to ensure victory.

The turn before Gideon Jura arrives can be a bit dicey: creatures are resolving and staring Jace, the Mind Sculptor in the face, but his hero protector arrives in the nick of time! The old combination of Gideon Jura and Jace, the Mind Sculptor is legendary and does not disappoint after all these years.

The manabase is the strongest part of this Esper Control deck and sets it apart from previous incarnations.

I promised myself I wouldn’t play a three-color control deck in Modern with a manabase that is painful or easily defeated by slight destruction. That promise was kept with ease. The mana is so good in Esper Control that a full playset of Field of Ruin was an easy inclusion!

The black splash is so light that one Swamp, one Godless Shrine, and one Watery Grave have been enough to maintain the one source throughout the game. The rest of the manabase mimics U/W Control’s, even copying the six basic lands that the two-color version rocks to this day.

There is only one Plains in the deck, but that is the maximum I’m willing to play in a three-color deck. With cards like Logic Knot, Snapcaster Mage; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; and Cryptic Command, running more non-Islands is too big of a gamble. Blood Moon is always a concern, but there are enough blue sources to continue to battle in that worst-case scenario.

The only cards that require double white are Gideon Jura and Supreme Verdict, but both can arrive after a timely Cryptic Command, Engineered Explosives, or Celestial Purge. With the mana working well, I am confident that Esper Control can be tuned to defeat whatever your metagame throws at you.

The Esper Professor has missed you, my favorite shard.