We have hit full stride with preview season for Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. Although it always feels like preview season due to the number of new sets, my excitement level has not waned. I’m still looking out for those control enhancements, especially in Standard, where these heroic archetypes have not been able to catch a break. The hostility toward control in Standard has less to do with low-strength cards at our disposal and more to do with the haymakers on the other side. The days of incremental advantage, surviving to the late-game, and using the mana advantage to lock up the win seem to be gone. The victor in Standard lately has been the one to land the biggest blows in the early- and mid-game and hope the opponent does not do it slightly better.
This state of Standard is relatively new, since Esper Control was a powerful option a few years ago with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria at the helm. After that rotation, the power level of sets went through the roof, multiple cards had to be banned, and the format never recovered. The bans were the best that could be done after the fact; however, it wasn’t enough to make a healthy Standard that everyone could enjoy. Due to the shortcomings of Standard, players flocked to other formats to get their cardboard fix. In my local scene, most local game stores shifted the format to either Modern or Draft, while the remaining few moved into a complete Commander setup. Standard was dropped by the paper world this last year and I don’t blame them one bit.
MTG Arena and Magic Online have continued to carry the torch for Standard in these dark times. Specifically, MTG Arena players have continued to keep the format relevant for conversation to some degree. Alternative formats have appeared on that platform, like Standard 2022 and Historic, giving us more options outside of Standard. We’re led to believe that Standard 2022 was not produced as a life-preserver for the drop in interest for Standard, but I’m skeptical. Standard was the most popular format of Magic for the last 25 years, through its ups and downs, and now most players want nothing to do with it.
Rotation is the one solution that has helped awful Standard formats recover into full health. These mistakes from the overpowered sets of the last year are finally on their way out in about a week. It has felt like an eternity, with the bans, pandemic, and Organized Play system forced to use MTG Arena as the sole platform for competitive play. With this program front and center, the worst Standard formats were the only choices on the menu since the initial lockdown. There’s no reason to point fingers now, since the remedy is right around the corner. All the problematic cards are leaving, and a low-powered pool of sets remain. I’ve already sculpted out a few control shells with what remains, and I’m generally optimistic, outside of a devastating Gruul planeswalker I saw, that our answers can defeat the threats.
Innistrad: Midnight Hunt hasn’t been the flashiest set, nor have its recent predecessors. The removal displayed has been decent, the countermagic has been at a Cancel-level of strength, and the win conditions are good enough. There have been a few creatures that have sparked my interest in the last few months of new sets and another big hitter just arrived on my desk.
I love a good creature in control decks and much prefer that style to the reactive alternative. This belief is stronger in Standard than other formats, where the answers aren’t strong enough to disrupt and win the game on their own. A card like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria does it all by itself, making the need for creatures minimal when it’s on the team. In Standard, we need some creature assistance to deal lethal damage, while providing some additional control service in the process. This is where Liesa, Forgotten Archangel comes in.
Lyra Dawnbringer, Baneslayer Angel, and recently Dream Trawler have brought the pain to aggro. These creatures all represented big control in some way, either as a maindeck win condition or a sideboard threat. The key similarity between the bunch is lifelink, which control takes full advantage of. Other archetypes have employed the services of some of these lifelink creatures as well, but they don’t utilize it as effectively.
Gaining life is a huge boon for control users, since the early-game is mostly setup and survival. While we’re hitting land drops and thwarting early spells, our life total drops from the hits we take in the process. Other decks don’t have this issue to the same extent, as they’re developing their battlefield with their own threats that defend their life total while applying pressure. If a control player drops one of these creatures on defense in the mid-game and the aggressive player does not have an immediate answer, it’s often game over on the spot.
Liesa is next in the lifelink creature lineage of Standard. It has similar power and toughness stats as its predecessors, with a chunk of relevant abilities. The pro-Dragon and pro-Demon line of Baneslayer Angel always seemed funny to me, but not very applicable in any format where it saw play. Since it had first strike already, very few combatants could defeat it in battle as is. It goes without saying that she flies, as every Angel should. The evasion is a stock requirement to even start the playability conversation as a control finisher. Creatures that cannot connect easily seldom get consideration, especially those that need to gain life. Liesa does not have any additional keyword abilities, but each piece of text on it has immediate relevancy in post-rotation Standard.
The first ability gives you sweeper protection, as well as shielding the more vulnerable creatures you may employ alongside Liesa. Each nontoken creature returns to your hand if killed while Liesa is on the battlefield, which is huge. It may not be the most-used ability for true control decks but gets exponentially better when you bring her into midrange decks. As with Lyra Dawnbringer and Baneslayer Angel, control was the primary home, but other decks utilized their services as well. I see Liesa getting into multiple archetypes, not just from her lifegaining ability but due to this ability that protects all the creatures around her.
Having sweeper protection makes this a creature I love and hate at the same time. There will be scenarios where I face this on the other side of the battlefield and lament the failure of my answers, where a Lyra Dawnbringer, Baneslayer Angel, or even a Dream Trawler would fall clean to a Doomskar. The effects that protect over-extension of threats have seen play historically, especially when they’re attached to a permanent that would see play on its own. I look forward to having this in my inaugural Esper Control list, but I’m fully aware that it could be more of a curse than a blessing in the overall metagame.
The other ability on Liesa is much more control-friendly and heavily enhances removal. Making all of control’s removal exile is something I’m looking forward to in just a few short weeks. The remaining removal for control is decent, but the most cost-effective ones are just destroy effects. Liesa upgrades all these spells, preventing recurring threats or other graveyard nonsense from being an issue while she’s on the battlefield. Extinction Event saw play over other sweeper options in control for that exact reason, and even though many of these resilient threats are rotating, there will always be a graveyard presence in Standard. With the return of flashback and other Innistrad-like flavor, graveyards cannot be ignored by control decks that want to succeed. Standard is rarely the place to play dedicated hate for those strategies, but control takes full advantage of spells and permanents that have it attached as a bonus.
I’m usually wary on the viability of preview cards that have a heavy two-color requirement. Liesa does not have that Obzedat, Ghost Council strictness, but it does require jumping into Orzhov. I had the same concerns for Vanishing Verse, expecting its strength to overcome in the end. Vanishing Verse has seen a decent amount of play, even with it having an unpopular color combination. With the preview of Liesa, Orzhov’s stock post-rotation has gone up significantly. The shell is already building itself, with having the best removal and strong threats, making me a very happy Esper Control mage.
Even if control is already in danger from the preview of Arlinn, the Pack’s Hope, cards like this can give us a fighting chance. Control may have to look different to complement Liesa, with more creatures and additional midrange elements, but I’m fine with that because the new slowlands, non-rotating disruption, and some exciting new previews make me hopeful for the new Standard.