While the release of Strixhaven has proven to be a big hit in Modern, there’s another big story in the format these days. Something I never thought I would say in 2021 has occurred: three-drop-centric Esper Control was one of the best-performing Modern decks this month.
The first mover on this deck was TSPJendrek, with a Modern Challenge win at the start of the month. Every other list has drawn on this core.
But it really feels like WaToO, better known as the Esper Control king Guillaume Wafo-Tapa, figured out the best aspects of the deck in the current Modern metagame and leaned into them.
Why Is Esper Control Good Now?
As much as I loathe to bring up Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath ever again, it’s time to do so. If you look at the best decks in current Modern, a lot of them are things we figured out were good in that Uro era. That’s largely because Uro wasn’t a deck you could run significant exploits against; you just had to battle them out as a good, resilient deck and hope that you got enough margin to be 55% against them. Now that Uro is gone, those decks like Prowess variants and Selesnya Company are still among the best in the format; it’s just that they’re more exploitable and the metagame can actually cycle around that.
Esper Control is not one of those powerful holdovers. It isn’t just that Uro dominated it in the blue control realm. Esper isn’t an abstractly or broadly powerful deck — it’s just a pretty darn good metagame exploit.
Esper fills the same role Azorius-based control has ever since Jace, the Mind Sculptor was unbanned. These decks have just enough raw power to hang with everything else, especially if you know what you need to do to win your rough matchups, and if your fundamentally good matchups roll into the top of the metagame, you’re set up for a good time.
And that’s exactly what has happened since Uro was banned.
Prowess variants are one of the top decks in the metagame, and their primary weakness is someone killing all their creatures immediately. The combination of Snapcaster Mage plus removal is brutal against them, and hard counters let you manage their Lurrus of the Dream-Den return into the late-game. You also have a ton of makeshift Lightning Helixes to deploy to keep them from stealing games with burn: Kaya’s Guile literally directly gains life, and the theft mode of Archmage’s Charm gives you a chump block or eats a Lightning Bolt, which all adds up to the same thing.
On the other side of the color pie, Selesnya Company is a bunch of three-mana sorcery-speed spells and four copies of Collected Company. That isn’t a combination that has a history of success against Mana Leak and Jace, the Mind Sculptor.
And to cover one of the weaknesses of prior control decks, you just get Kaya’s Guile. It’s a three-mana Tormod’s Crypt against graveyard decks, but a three-mana Tormod’s Crypt you can flashback with Snapcaster Mage is a good enough plan that your sideboard can close the gap in those matchups.
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria is also really great these days. With Skyclave Apparition as a pillar of the format, we have gone full circle back to the Fatal Push heyday where a mana value of five is effectively hexproof. Cheap War of the Spark planeswalkers are out of style and the classics are back. One of the things I like the most about Wafo-Tapa’s list is maximizing Teferis over Jaces, which costs you a small margin when trying to overpower a deck you’re less able to interact with in favor of just having a better card against the portions of the metagame you’re actually trying to beat.
I’m going to hammer this home a few times with Esper Control, but you should be building your deck like this. If you go broad and try to beat everything at once, you’re going to lose way more ground to your actual good matchups than you’re going to gain against the field and you really risk going the Jund road of being 40-45% against everything.
Esper’s slight drop-off in results this last weekend can be directly attributed to people trying new things. The less of the metagame those top two decks represent, the less exciting Esper is as a metagame exploit.
The reason this specific Esper shell is fundamentally good is that it’s really min-maxing its slots. You have a significant number of cheap answers, but also every expensive card is a two-for-one so you never get caught in the classic bind of drawing all lands and removal and losing to chip-shot card advantage.
To go back to a couple of recent points, that puts Force of Negation in a bit of a bind even if it looks like an obvious inclusion. It isn’t a two-for-one, and is a one-for-two the other way if you want it to be cheap. It’s definitely a card where you’re sacrificing percentage against Boros Prowess (Lurrus) and Selesnya Company for value against the field, but it’s so effective against so many things I think the math works out for at least the first couple of copies in the maindeck and maybe more in the sideboard. Strixhaven also plays a part in this due to Force of Negation being one of the more effective cards at stopping Thrilling Discovery starts from Dredge.
The card that looks the most out of place for 2021 is definitely Esper Charm, but it oddly carries a lot of weight. One of the common ways decks try to beat these control decks is overload on things that require a hard counter instead of a Fatal Push that also overwhelms a planeswalker, running the Esper deck out of things capable of trading. Think Eldrazi Tron with all its Reality Smashers or whatever, where Esper can’t spend an Archmage’s Charm to draw two and break card parity because it needs the Counterspell mode to not just die. Or the same thing with Cavern of Souls plus Primeval Titan.
In those matchups, Mind Rot goes a long way. Snapcaster Mage plus the discard mode of Esper Charm sets up a game state where your deck doesn’t have the physical cardboard to keep slamming threats, and the breathing room of their bad draw steps lets you set up to stick a planeswalker. Jace’s +2 fateseal mode can really come online in these game states, giving you that one safe turn to untap and get to Brainstorming.
A List and Matchups
Specific things I preserved from each list:
- No Godless Shrine, so you can never accidentally draw it or trick yourself into fetching it. Your deck has Archmage’s Charm — have you read the cost on that card?
- Monastery Mentor, which I will sideboard in way too much because I hate putting effort into winning games of Magic.
- Zero copies of Spell Snare, because it is a gross liability against Lurrus where Drown in the Loch isn’t. If Mono-Green Tron gets me with a Relic of Progenitus, they get me.
- No Supreme Verdict. It violates the rule of being cheap or a clear two-for-one in a format where the “small” creatures are things like Death’s Shadow and Monastery Swiftspear that solo you and demand an individual answer.
- Go for the Throat as the generic sideboard removal spell of choice. I want it to kill everything every time, not have weird corner cases. That’s what the Eliminate slot that could be Vanishing Verse is for, with Eliminate killing Lurrus being the tiebreaker.
VS Boros Prowess (Lurrus)
Whether your opponent reveals Lurrus as their companion should drive your entire mulligan strategy with Esper Control. If they do, your hand had better have early interaction. If they don’t, Fatal Push is half a mulligan.
This matchup isn’t rocket science. Kill their stuff, and don’t die. Use Archmage’s Charm as Control Magic and not Counterspell. Your second Kaya’s Guile mode is going to vary too much for me to give a clean answer, but remember the exile matters if you feel like you’re short a way to kill Lurrus in the short term in a mid-game.
The one relevant difference is timing your removal against Izzet Prowess relative to Boros. If they’re playing the Izzet version, you should be very careful about letting Stormwing Entity resolve since you have so few ways to answer it. Again, five mana value is hexproof. Leaving up Mana Leak early for it is often more important than cutting them off spectacle for Light Up the Stage or the small amount of life.
The cuts are a bit weird, but there’s some balancing to do. Jace and Force of Negation are clear cuts since they’re too fragile or don’t trade for things that matter. I don’t want to lose too many two-for-ones, and Mana Leak goes dead quickly, but losing early interaction is also tough. You could cut Esper Charm as well, but Cryptic Command costs so much mana and drawing two is costing so much mana twice.
Against Izzet Prowess, I would also consider the Thoughtseize as a way to go after Stormwing Entity without losing on the stack against Mystical Dispute. Your own Mystical Dispute also might be good enough, but only because it hits Sprite Dragon and Stormwing Entity.
VS Selesnya Company
- 4 Spike Feeder
- 4 Auriok Champion
- 1 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Arbor Elf
- 2 Walking Ballista
- 4 Ranger-Captain of Eos
- 4 Heliod, Sun-Crowned
- 3 Conclave Mentor
- 4 Skyclave Apparition
They have twelve cards that really matter these days: Heliod, Sun-Crowned; Collected Company; and Ranger-Captain of Eos. Your counterspells should all be aimed at these, and you should ideally use Snapcaster Mage to flashback counters on them. Esper Charm is really nice to force the Collected Company action before you tap out for Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and your only other goal is making sure they can’t attack down Teferi the turn you cast it.
Unlike most other decks, you have multiple ways to clear a Heliod from the battlefield. Not saying you should let it resolve, especially since one of those ways to answer Heliod is tapping our for Teferi and the other is losing a draw off Cryptic Command, but you can maneuver your way through missing a Turn 3 answer.
Fatal Push isn’t good, but you sometimes want one to keep things clean for a planeswalker.
The two sideboard concerns are Veil of Summer and Choke. Choke is just another expensive sorcery to not lose to, but Veil of Summer is a pain. You almost want Teferi, Time Raveler, but they’re going to cut Auriok Champion before they cut Skyclave Apparition so it’s just a liability. Their Veil of Summer count varies a ton, so you can always just roll the dice on them even having it in a good spot early enough to matter. Since those sideboard threats are all noncreature spells, the extra Veto finds its way in to fight them.
VS Four-Color Death’s Shadow (Lurrus)
This matchup has a similar premise to the Prowess matchup, but instead of cards that don’t trade for your cards like Lava Dart, they have cards that do trade like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. That tends to make things a bit trickier, but it makes your planeswalker minus abilities a lot stronger since they don’t get burned out as much.
Kaya’s Guile’s lifegain mode gains ground relative to the Boros Prowess (Lurrus) matchup to cut off Scourge of the Skyclaves, but the mode you select beyond sacrificing a creature still varies a ton.
Sideboarding remains similar to the Boros Prowess (Lurrus) matchup bar Jace, the Mind Sculptor, which is obviously a much better card versus slower creatures and more attrition. I’m also close to recommending keeping all the Esper Charms over another Mana Leak to keep your hand quality flatter after a discard spell. Mystery box rules apply: two random cards could be anything, even a Mana Leak!
Try to pace your Kaya’s Guile if your opponent is high on cards in hand, since exiling a Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger from their graveyard is key to not getting out-leveraged going long. Their other scary sideboard card is Veil of Summer, but it’s in such low quantities usually that it isn’t worth planning around until they start playing the game as if they have it.
VS Eldrazi Tron
- 1 Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger
- 4 Reality Smasher
- 4 Thought-Knot Seer
- 4 Matter Reshaper
- 2 Walking Ballista
This is textbook for how blue control in Modern beats decks that aren’t supposed to be good matchups. Do just enough early to not fold to their nonsense, slam a planeswalker, and hope drawing a bunch of cards a turn is good enough. Hint: this matchup has been happening for years, and all my experience is that it’s enough. This is one of the matchups you wish you had more Force of Negations for, but it’s mostly amazing as a hedge against their best draws that you will struggle to beat down the line anyway and merely good otherwise.
Beyond the obvious Fatal Push, my sideboarding is largely trying to avoid the worst-case scenarios with their lone sideboard card Relic of Progenitus. It might be a little much on the trimming side, but all the interaction you’re cutting scales poorly with Urza’s Tower even ignoring Relic, so it’s not a huge loss.
VS Esper Control
This is the one major matchup where Force of Negation is a major loss. You won’t tap out a ton, but having something that makes it less scary is always wonderful. Of course, they don’t know you don’t have it Game 1 so their play doesn’t change, but in an open-decklist event, I would consider a second Force of Negation if you expect more mirror matches.
Multiple Esper Charms to shred their hand make for one of the easier ways to end a game. Watch out for Kaya’s Guile on exile + token as a clean counter to Snapcaster Mage.
If you see exactly Monastery Mentor out of your opponent I would consider keeping the last Mana Leak, but I expect these games to go really long and every other card in your deck is better. That’s a minor argument to trim a Dovin’s Veto, but I want it enough elsewhere and it’s so clean here that it feels worth a slot.
Drown in the Loch comes in clutch, letting you keep a sideboard hedge against a random Vendilion Clique or Monastery Mentor without putting a literal removal spell in your deck. If your opponent is a real maniac with multiple Teferi, Time Ravelers you can add Eliminate to this list of hedges, but I want to see they have that setup first before committing to an actual bad card in my deck.
VS Everything Else
I don’t want to dive too far into the rest of the metagame, since like I said, Esper Control starts becoming a more and more questionable choice as the format deviates from where it is now, but this spread of decks is a big part of why the Force of Negation plus Monastery Mentor spread in the sideboard is exciting. Both cards are broadly good against the field of nonsense while being reasonable against portions of the top of the metagame, and Mentor is not known for messing around with killing people.
And even with that caveat, I like Esper Control’s spot against the next-best four or five decks in Modern right now. Even if any of those pop up to that Top 5, like the Bring to Light Scapeshift deck, the changes Esper needs to make to account for them don’t seem too drastic.
Live it up while you can, Esper mages. Your favorite do-nothing nonsense is in the best place it has been in a long time.