The Strixhaven: School of Mages dust has settled and its impact on the competitive formats was successfully predicted by most content creators. We all knew this would be a low-powered set and that is not inherently a bad thing, especially in Standard. Many of us yearn for a decrease in the strength of spells, still reeling in pain from the Simic onslaught that we just recently survived. Even with many of those cards banned and/or rotated, a Sultai Ramp (Yorion) deck still roams the top tables, taking down players that attempt to play something innovative and new from the control camp.
Ramp decks have been historically problematic for control fans, as they replace their early-game removal with acceleration, leaving them with fewer dead cards in our head-to-head matchup. While we are holding additional copies of Heartless Act, they have put their survival eggs into one basket, banking on their big spells bailing them out against aggro decks, if they arrive ahead of schedule. I have dabbled in the Simic-based control realm before, trying to extract a bit of that ramp and combine it with powerful control elements. Although it is powerful, I prefer the traditional control model more, one that has been around since I started playing.
Sultai Ramp (Yorion) will be around for a bit, but it is beatable. This is not the same Simic-based deck that has terrorized control players in the past, as it depends on resolving expensive spells that can be easily thwarted. When they had access to Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath, it was not a simple task to remove it before the damage was already done. Outside of this matchup, the rest of the format is cluttered with matchups that a strong control deck can easily handle, with the help of a few Strixhaven gems that I knew would have an impact.
For control, the list of duds from Strixhaven is much longer than that of hits. It is rare for one set to completely revolutionize an archetype and my initial impression of some of these new cards was a hopeful optimism. Cards like Eureka Moment is still high on my list of impactful control spells, but the Simic-based control archetype is simply not there. There have been some successful attempts at a Sultai Control (Yorion) list that moves away from Emergent Ultimatum, but those decks are significantly less popular. Eureka Moment is a stronger spell than Behold the Multiverse and would take that slot if it had the chance. Despite my convictions, it must land in the dud category for now. I thought the strength of this card would overcome its lack of a true home, but it hits the stat sheet as a loss until it sees competitive play.
Multiple Choice misses the mark by the widest margin, and it brings me no pleasure to say this. A card like this, printed in a different era, would have been a four-of staple in most control decks. The weakness of Multiple Choice goes back to the original premise of this article, that Strixhaven is a weak set when tossed in the ring with the current Standard fighters. The versatility of this card was not enough to save it and the glaring issue is the unsummon clause. The opponent getting to choose what creature to bounce is a travesty in this Standard but would have been passable in the past. A small detail like that is enough to break a card’s playability, especially one that would have thrived as an Instant. The flaws of Multiple Choice is enough to make it an unlikely addition to a Standard control deck for the foreseeable future.
My most frustrating error was putting faith in my colleagues and their love of Reject. When this card was first previewed, I engaged in a Twitter debate on its utility. I was not convinced it was much better than Essence Scatter, since it was a clear liability in the late-game when the opponent is flushed with resources. The argument of hitting planeswalkers and the exile-effect against problematic creatures got to me – prompting my acceptance of the new counterspell. After extensive play with it and observing tournament results, I can confidently say that my gut instinct was correct on this one. There is plenty of time in Standard for Reject to make a comeback, but I am not holding my breath on this one.
The control hits were few, but significant. Whenever a new set is being previewed, my immediate instinct is to rush over to the planeswalker section. It is not a slot that is required for control to be viable, but it does push the power level way up when a recruit joins the team. For control lately, planeswalkers have been weak. The biggest loser in this exchange is Elspeth Conquers Death – a card that is vastly powerful when there are strong creatures or planeswalkers in the graveyard. Niko Aris has impressed me in that role, but it is not strong enough to carry water for the control team by itself.
Professor Onyx is the new planeswalker addition to control decks from Strixhaven. Since it costs six mana, it will not be a format-defining card like some control planeswalkers have been in the past. Professor Onyx does however fill a vital role for control decks – providing that battlefield presence that takes over games if not dealt with immediately. It checks all the sturdy boxes: high loyalty, built-in card advantage, removal, and a devastating ultimate, and the static ability is a bonus and arguably the best part of the card itself. Draining an opponent whenever an instant or sorcery is played is fabulous, especially in an archetype that is hungry for life-gain. This has been a one-of in my control decks, but I consider it a hit for the archetype. Whenever I see a Dimir-based control deck do well, Professor Onyx is lingering in the background.
The big success story coming out of Strixhaven for control decks is Vanishing Verse. This was a no-brainer for me, and my pick for a multi-format addition for control decks. Vanishing Verse handles most early-game threats with ease -exiling them at instant-speed – which is the best interaction a control deck can hope for, especially with many of the threats from aggro decks resilient against destroy effects. Not only does it hit creatures, but it also takes care of problematic planeswalkers and enchantments. The versatility on this card is off the charts and the only negative is the color combination is not popular in Standard now. If Orzhov-based decks gain popularity, you will see Vanishing Verse being cast nonstop.
There are very few decks that Vanishing Verse is weak against in Standard. It does the job of Elspeth Conquers Death in most scenarios, but in a leaner, more efficient way. While there is no large advantage swing, it also costs less than half and is an instant. Without Vanishing Verse, Esper Control would not be a deck I would dare sleeve up in the current Standard. It fixes the issue of having too much dead removal, replacing excess copies of Eliminate that would normally supplement Heartless Act. Since there are no enemy planeswalkers that cost two or three mana, Eliminate is solely a support removal spell. There are decks that put counters on their creatures, making Heartless Act a bit awkward there, but there are usually other targets for it. Vanishing Verse cleans up that mess, while staying relevant against the rest of the format.
Dimir Control (Yorion) has been a blast to play, but it is time to connect the final color to the strongest shard in the game. Esper Control (Yorion) may be more inconsistent on the mana side, but it makes up for it with a strong sweeper spell, planeswalker, and the power of Vanishing Verse.
This is the Esper Control (Yorion) list I have been working with – made possible with Vanishing Verse and its strength against the best decks in the format. Each of the aggro decks take full advantage of mono-colored threats – providing plenty of targets for the new and improved removal package of Esper Control (Yorion). Standard has sped up since the rotation, which is evident by the laundry-list of aggro decks that infest the top tables of the most-current events.
With a new aggro-based format, control must adapt. The early-game of Esper Control (Yorion) is full of targeted removal, with a five-sweeper combination to eradicate the battlefield if it gets out of hand. I split the sweepers between Extinction Event and Doomskar due to the inclusion of Vanishing Verse. Before Strixhaven, white-based control decks had an issue exiling creatures that could not be defeated through normal means. This all changed with the new set – allowing control players to return to Doomskar as the primary sweeper of choice. The combination of both options makes it very difficult to play against Esper Control (Yorion) – punishing opponents that over-extend with Doomskar – or play conservatively with Extinction Event. Both sweepers have impressed me against the current metagame, with the split between the two being the sweet spot against aggro decks.
The removal package is aided by the usual suspects in a control deck that utilizes Yorion, Sky Nomad. Elspeth’s Nightmare and Elspeth Conquers Death take care of business from the enchantment side, while Niko Aris, Ugin, the Spirit Dragon, Ashiok, Nightmare Muse, and Professor Onyx make-up the planeswalker suite. The two planeswalkers that have not made their mark on Standard quite yet, Niko Aris and Professor Onyx have been the most impressive additions so far. The early-game setup with Niko Aris has been great, entering the battlefield and efficiently knocking out a tapped threat. If Niko Aris survives the turn, it untaps and provides continuous advantage. Even if it is dealt with, it did its job while providing an option for Elspeth Conquers Death in the late-game.
The long list of permanents that love to interact with Yorion, Sky Nomad is protected by one of the best control finishers ever made: Dream Trawler. As aggro decks gain popularity, the stock of Dream Trawler increases. It is still one of the few permanents a control player can finish their curve with, resulting in the opponent immediately signing the result slip in defeat. The life-gain and Hexproof abilities on Dream Trawler make it a home run in an aggressive format, but it does require the viability of the archetype to return. Azorius Control has missed the mark lately, but a small black splash may have resuscitated it back to life.
The rest of this Esper Control (Yorion) deck is filled with my favorite control cards of Standard. The Foretell spells are great and the main deck counterspells deflect must-answer spells from across the metagame spectrum. It may sound crazy to play three main-deck Negate in an aggro-filled metagame, but the spells are much scarier than the creatures. Cards like Showdown of the Skalds, Maul of the Skyclaves, Alrund’s Epiphany, and the pile of card draw from Dimir Rogues (Lurrus) are just a few of the non-creature spells that keep me up at night. Negate is a clean answer to these, while Saw It Coming is the more expensive, but flexible staple.
The sideboard continues the trend, providing Esper Control (Yorion) additional cheap disruption with Duress and Mystical Dispute, while ramping up the pressure against slower decks with more expensive control all-stars. The aggro assistance is light, with help from an additional The Birth of Meletis, Extinction Event, and two Kaervek, the Spiteful. The last addition has been fantastic against white-based aggro – giving the deck more answers for the tough-to-kill creatures. With a little help from Strixhaven, Esper Control (Yorion) has become a viable option for control players in Standard.