As you've probably noticed, I've been playing a lot of Esper Control lately. I've been fortunate enough to make the Top 8 of Grand Prix Louisville and the finals of the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Indianapolis with Esper as my Standard weapon of choice. With a record of 9-3-1 in Louisville (not including byes) and 6-0-2 in Indianapolis, it would be tough for me to consider playing any other deck. But it's my record in the Esper mirror that I'm particularly proud of:
4-0 in Louisville
2-0 and up a game before drawing into the Top 8 in Indianapolis
A lot of players at events have been asking me for advice on how to become proficient in the Esper Control mirror, but that is a difficult question to answer in such a short period of time. Therefore, my primary focus will be to discuss the important concepts and strategies of the Esper mirror before sideboarding as well as to touch on how to win games 2 and 3 assuming you've left yourself enough time to do so.
Let's begin by taking a look at the two Esper Control lists designed by Reid Duke that I recently played in major tournaments. The first is from Grand Prix Louisville:
And here is the list I played at the StarCityGames.com Invitational in Indianapolis:
First, let's look at this question: how many cards in the deck are capable of winning the game on its own.
Aetherling: Generally played as a one-of but certainly the most potent threat in the Esper Control mirror, Aetherling is usually the card that wins the game and is by far the most important card in game 1. It is exponentially better than any other threat, and if it resolves, the player that controls it will win the game a vast majority of the time.
Elspeth Sun's Champion: Usually Esper Control has between one and two copies of Elspeth. While an unanswered Elspeth is certainly capable of winning a game, it is not a difficult card to answer. Most of the Esper builds have four copies of Detention Sphere and between two and three copies of Hero's Downfall. One thing that Elspeth does have going for her is that the same cards that can be used to remove her are often spent removing opposing copies of Jace, Architect of Thought. On the flip side, Jace is also good at delaying Elspeth's Soldier army from doing serious damage while allowing its controller to search for answers. While Elspeth certainly steals games in the Esper mirror, it is definitely not something you want to completely rely on.
Blood Baron of Vizkopa: Some of the newer builds, like the one Reid and I played in the Invitational, have only one Elspeth and two copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa. While you might think that this change increased the threat count to four, I'd argue that it reduced the threat count to two. Blood Baron of Vizkopa, while a potent threat if able to stick around, is vulnerable to all four copies of Supreme Verdict from your opponent's deck. Since the count is four Verdicts to two Blood Barons, it's very unlikely for the Blood Baron to end any game 1s in the Esper mirror. After you're forced to spend five mana on it, it's easier for an opposing Elspeth -3 to deal with it as well.
Some will argue that Jace, Architect of Thought is capable of winning the game on its own. This is not correct. Jace can ultimate and search for Aetherling from both your deck and your opponent's deck. Your Aetherling still needs to resolve. Also, while taking your opponent's Aetherling out of their deck is awesome (because they no longer have access to it), it doesn't do nearly as much as your own. If you ever use the "blink" ability, Aetherling will return to play under your opponent's control since they own the card. Because of the limited number of counterspells and their importance, which we'll get to later, it's often not worth it to protect your Jace from cards like Detention Sphere or Hero's Downfall anyway.
So the answer to the first question is that there are roughly two-to-three cards that are capable of winning the game on their own. One, Aetherling, is vastly more powerful and important than the other, Elspeth.
Next question: how do we interact with our opponent's major threats?
Typically Esper Control plays three copies of Dissolve and between zero and two copies of Thoughtseize in the maindeck. These are the only ways that exist to deal with an opposing Aetherling. Five cards in your 60-card deck. To deal with Elspeth, you also get four Detention Spheres and two Hero's Downfalls.
Thoughtseize is tricky. It doesn't directly deal with anything, as your opponent has to have the card in their hand at the time you cast Thoughtseize. You can't exactly just save it until you need it like you can with Dissolve. One mistake people often make is casting Thoughtseize too early in the game. When your opponent has only seen ten or eleven cards, it's unlikely that they have their Aetherling in hand. Typically you want to save Thoughtseize for a situation where you are very likely able to get your opponent's Aetherling out of their hand or as a start to resolving your own Aetherling. Thoughtseize can be a good start to a turn in which you try to resolve Aetherling because it will either eat one of your opponent's counters (and mana) or give you enough information to know that the coast is clear.
Dissolve is your best weapon for fighting battles in the Esper Control mirror. If I were required to give one sentence of advice on how to use Dissolve in game 2 of Esper mirrors, it would be this: "Almost never use Dissolve to counter any spells other than Aetherling, Dissolve, or Thoughtseize." I know this seems fairly extreme and it's certainly more complex than just that, but it's a reasonable starting point.
I want to stress something here. The most popular Esper Control lists have equal to or more copies of Dissolve than they do cards that are capable of winning the game. If you think about the fact that Elspeth can be easily dealt with by a handful of other cards, you will understand what I was describing above. If you are able to counter your opponent's Aetherling, they are often simply incapable of winning the game. By extension, if you only counter cards that matter in the Aetherling war, you are going to have the best chance of winning.
Now that we've established that each player has more ways to answer their opponent's threats than the opponent has threats to cast, where do we go from here?
The obvious next step is to begin to think about the library as a resource. The plan of decking your opponent becomes extremely relevant. I would estimate roughly 40 percent of the game 1s of Esper Control mirrors I've played have been decided by decking. You need to be aware of who is ahead on cards early and keep it in mind.
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make in game 1 of Esper Control mirrors is using Dissolve on Sphinx's Revelation. A Sphinx's Revelation for three or four barely matters. We're talking about a situation where we only care about six cards in the entire deck. If your opponent is casting Sphinx's Revelation for four and you're dissolving it, you are basically saying that four cards are worth more than your Dissolve. Four random cards in the Esper mirror are worth a decent amount less I'd say than a Dissolve is. Factor in that a big part of our plan is to deck our opponent and you'll see why countering the Sphinx's Revelation is even worse.
Obviously, I am not claiming that you should never under any circumstances counter a Sphinx's Revelation in game 1. To use an extreme example, if your hand were only a Dissolve and your opponent had one card in hand and cast a Revelation for thirteen at the end of your turn, you should probably counter it. It's just too likely your opponent will be able to resolve an Aetherling if able to draw that many cards. On the flip side, if the Revelation were only for three in the same spot, it's almost certainly not worth spending the counter.
Taking into account that decking plays such a major role, it lets you make really interesting decisions with Jace, Architect of Thought. Oftentimes what happens is people just start slamming Jaces on turn 4 since there really isn't much else to do. It's normally followed up with a minus, and we are almost certainly not countering it since we want to save our Dissolves for the important cards.
Let's say your opponent plays Jace on turn 4, leaving themself open with six cards in hand, and reveals something like Island, Godless Shrine, Hallowed Fountain. I virtually always split all versus none in this situation. If you split two versus one, they can choose the one and not discard to hand size, or they can choose the two and discard one card. It's best to let them have all three cards, making their deck smaller. If you are able to get them on a couple of no-value Jace splits where they end up getting a bunch of meaningless cards, that's one extra Sphinx's Revelation for three or four that you can cast without falling behind in the decking battle. Keep in mind cards like Doom Blade or Supreme Verdict are worse than lands and you're more than willing to let your opponent discard them rather than putting them on the bottom of their library.
Another interesting dynamic arises when a player taps out early in the game to play Jace and uses its minus ability revealing Aetherling. If you take the Aetherling, you lose it to Thoughtseize, and there's nothing you can do about it. If you don't take the Aetherling, it goes to the bottom of your library with no way to shuffle (aside from using Jace ultimate).
Also, take note that even though sometimes Jace ultimate won't have any threats left to find in either deck, the fact that it can take any meaningless card from your deck means that your deck gets one card smaller. I actually played an Esper Control mirror in which I had scryed lands to the bottom of my deck, knowing this was extremely important as my Aetherling was going to be able to attack for lethal on the turn in which I drew the last card in my library. My opponent was frantically ticking up Jace to try to get my last card, but I knew what it was, so I had nothing to worry about.
On that note, make sure you're fully aware of what assortment of cards have been sent to the bottom of your deck, both from Jace, Architect of Thought and from scrying. As the game gets very late, it's important to know what you are likely to draw, where your Dissolves and Thoughtseizes are, and of course where your Aetherling likely is. Do the same thing when your opponents use Jace to put cards on the bottom. Take notes if you need to. Make sure you keep the maximum amount of information available to you at all times. If your opponent had to put a Dissolve on the bottom of their library because there were two in a Jace split, this is monumentally valuable information. Make sure to remember these details when deciding whether or not it's time to cast your Thoughtseizes and/or try to resolve your Aetherling.
Game 1 is vastly more complicated than the post-sideboarded games in the Esper Control mirror, but I'd like to give a brief overview of that as well. First of all, forget everything I've just taught you. With access to three and sometimes four copies of Gainsay; more Thoughtseizes; multiple copies of Negate; more threats of various kinds such as Jace, Memory Adept; and potentially even more copies of Aetherling, card advantage once again becomes king. Other than with Jace, Memory Adept, decking is not really a concern anymore.
Because you once again have a vast number of cards that can trade one-for-one for your opponent's cards, the old faithful strategy of one-for-ones followed up with massive card draw is the best route to victory. Even "small" Sphinx's Revelations for three or four are often worth spending a counter on. Gainsay specifically provides a lot more answers to Aetherling, and its cheap mana cost makes winning the fights a lot easier.
One interesting thing about post-sideboard games of the Esper Control mirror is guessing how many copies of Blood Baron of Vizkopa your opponent will have in their deck for sideboarded games. With many decks having access to four copies, be careful about taking too many Supreme Verdicts out of your deck. With no or few Supreme Verdicts in a deck, Blood Baron becomes a much more potent threat against it.
Another thing to note is to be very careful when letting Jace, Memory Adept resolve. If you are going to remove it with Hero's Downfall, that's fine. If you plan is to use Detention Sphere to take care of it, though, just be aware that some people will board in Glare of Heresy. Although often people don't play it, if you Detention Sphere their Memory Adept, turning their Glare of Heresy into a two-mana Jace, Memory Adept is a very difficult proposition. The cheap cost of the Glare will make it very difficult for you to fight over it.
Even though the StarCityGames.com Standard Open in Los Angeles was filled with aggressive strategies, I believe that Esper Control is still a very well positioned deck in Standard right now. My expectation is that midrange decks will step up and quash the red-based aggressive decks in the format. Assuming that happens, Esper will prey on those strategies. And if that's the case, you're going to have to beat some Esper players along the way who are thinking just like you are.