The SCG Invitational in Las Vegas is right around the corner, and it's time to choose what we will be battling with my friends. Esper and U/W/R Control have been my topics for some time now, and I still think U/W/R is the solution to defeating a metagame filled with Mono-Black Devotion and red-based aggro decks. The issue is that U/W/R has its hands full with a series of bad matchups that Esper can scoff at when in the same situation. G/R Devotion and pretty much any deck with Ajani, Caller of the Pride is just a huge problem for U/W/R, while they're almost a walk in the park for Esper. The absence of Hero's Downfall in U/W/R is really the nail in the coffin for it and why I'll be siding with Esper for the Invitational.
I tried to get some testing done with Esper Control on Magic Online, but I ran into a ton of Mono-Red Aggro. The popularity of Mono-Red online is to be expected due to its cheap cost, but this proves to be an issue for playtesting with Esper because the matchup is unwinnable. I don't use the term unwinnable often, but in this case I 100% mean it. That matchup is just a bye for the opposing red mage, and if you have read my work in the past, you know that I find playing a deck that is a huge underdog to Mono-Red to be completely unacceptable. I have thrived off beating these types of aggro decks over my career, so conceding to them is not an option I'm interested in. So today I'm going to lay out the key flaws of Esper against the aggressive decks and hopefully provide us some solutions to them.
First, the decklist:
The Battle Of Good vs. Evil
In the war of control against aggro, it's clear and proven that we (control) are the good guys. The evidence is the card usage my friends. Who attacks who first? Who slings fire and hostile drains? Not us! We simply like to draw some cards, clear the board of aggressive monsters, and eventually stop the violence with a large bomb to prevent further warfare. For this reason, my goal is to continue to help guide my readers to play the most effective spells for their respective metagames.
A lot of people have asked me what I think about U/W, Grixis, or other types of control decks that aren't my weapon of choice, and I respond with that "same team" rhetoric. As long as you are winning and enjoying your Magic experience, then keep it up. I still think U/W/R is the most balanced control deck in Standard, but for a tournament that is going to be filled with R/G planeswalkers and other control decks, it's time to fight fire with fire. I have the full intention of switching back to U/W/R when playing in a regular Open or other large tournament because of the aggro population that is clearly defined in those types of events.
There are a few silver bullets that help us in the fight against the evil aggressive menace. Let's identify a few of these cards that are going to be essential on defense.
It isn't a secret that this creature is the bee's knees against the aggro decks. When paired against a poor G/W opponent, slam this fella and the game is all but over. This creature is so good that it almost upsets me due to my love for Obzedat, Ghost Council. Poor Obzedeezy and his dismissal from the control decks. Every piece of me wants to toss a couple in there and have him split time with the Baron, but we all know that one of those guys is just better than the other. Blood Baron's lifelink is the key to victory over the aggro decks that have filled the metagame as of late. We have seen a lot of Esper decks with zero in the main and then two to three in the board, but I think it is just too dangerous to not have some protection against these decks in the first game.
The protection from white and black provides a nearly unkillable threat that decks like Mono-Black Devotion, W/R, GW, and even the mirror will shiver when facing one down. The life gain is so far and few between in this deck that it is just a nightmare to play against anything that attacks in the early turns. The Baron provides us a sliver of hope in the first game and is a more attractive option than something like Pharika's Cure, which is pretty tough to have game 1 because of how narrow its application is. When Hero's Downfall becomes less and less played, Obzedat will have its day in the sun once again. In the meantime, we have to take full advantage of the creature that allows control to push through difficult times, so Blood Baron it is.
This is a card that I have always wished were a little better. When we decide to play Esper Control, there are some consequences that come with that choice. The game against the aggressive decks needs a lot of help in the form of life gain that simply isn't around these days. As most know, Harry Corvese roomed with me at the Invitational in Indy. The night before the Standard Open, he and I prepared his Esper list for optimal bashing. He dodged the red menace round after round and only battled against a couple G/W decks before hoisting the trophy, but there were some notable cards that I suggested he add that provided some obvious success.
You all know that Trading Post and I are good friends for the life-gain mode, and that was included in his 75. Red has improved ten-fold since then, so the lonely Trading Post will not suffice on its own. In comes Fiendslayer Paladin to the rescue to help us against the lightning-fast Mono-Red Aggro deck, the deck that makes people sell their Esper cards on Magic Online day after day.
Fiendslayer Paladin doesn't necessarily have the protection we need against the black decks but is just fine against the red ones. Minus Ash Zealot, it has the ability to halt an enemy attack and provide a little bit of life right before a Supreme Verdict. Fiendslayer Paladin is a trump to nearly the entire red deck, and when it's supported by powerful control cards, I see victory in the near future. The best part about the little lifelinker, however, is its decoy ability against Mono-Black Devotion.
It's no secret that Fiendslayer Paladin is pretty poor against Mono-Black Devotion on its own, but the best thing this little guy can do is sacrifice his life to a Devour Flesh later in the game. Mono-Black has defeated Esper by dispatching a Blood Baron of Vizkopa by way of the popular edict effect, and Fiendslayer Paladin will gladly take the bullet for him. More often than not Mono-Black will only have a couple Devour Fleshes, and if the cards fall together well enough, you'll see this interaction happen a few times.
In the meantime, the Fiendslayer Paladin is a mini-threat and can help you keep your life total up while taking some damage from other permanents they control. This sideboard card is obviously much better against the red decks by a mile, but at least the application isn't too narrow. I will be giving this a shot in testing and keep you guys updated on Twitter with the results.
Brad Nelson is the new face of the Goat token, so be sure to snag a couple to use while playing my version of Esper Control. Trading Post will be a sideboard one-of as long as the red decks exist because of the massive life gain attached to it. In the SCG Classic Series at Virginia Beach, I had a Trading Post against an aggressive deck and easily gained over twenty life to remain competitive and eventually come back and win.
Trading Post gives Esper the life gain that it desperately needs, and the only issue is the amount of sideboard slots that can be dedicated to it. Many times there is not enough time to get to turn 5 to play then activate, which is why the Fiendslayer Paladin mentioned prior in conjunction with a removal spell or two can guarantee survival. Running a Trading Post might not seem cool or sexy, but it is such a great card against these decks and needs to be included.
This serves as the fifth Supreme Verdict. I convinced Harry to run one of these in the maindeck to serve as one more board sweeper as well as an answer for all problematic cards. Merciless Eviction has the power to remove Gods, Underworld Connections, Whips of Erebos, planeswalkers—you name it, we kill it! As a six-mana spell, there can only be one spot dedicated to it, and a card like Planar Cleansing is a bit too uncontrollable to run with all of our personal enchantments and planeswalkers.
There isn't a matchup besides Mono-Red Aggro where I cut this card because of all of the prior action you can do to set up the mass removal spell. It's reminiscent of the days of Terminus, and there have been multiple occasions when paying six for a sweeper was just fine. This format delivers that same luxury.
Geared Up Against Red, But Still Want To Dodge!
Esper Control has more tools now than it's ever had against most of the decks out there. The planeswalkers are great, the card draw is still pretty good, the removal is broad, and the win conditions are epic. The key problem is setting up the early turns and doing that with all of come-into-play-tapped lands. Nearly all of the lands in Esper either Shock you or come into play tapped, and that leaves you at a clear disadvantage in the life-total and tempo department. The old red decks made it easier for us to live, but the new-age versions with all of the one-drops makes the matchup unbearable. Some of the stock cards that helped black handle these fast decks have become much worse as of late.
Doom Blade was an exciting staple printed for black decks to answer the average problem creature. Nobody thought that it would be a dead card against so many different options that include Specters, Demons, Gods, Rats, and all sorts of other critters that are being played heavily. When both of the big monocolored decks run a four-of problem card that your main spot removal spell can't deal with, the world becomes a sad place. Doom Blade is fantastic against every red and green deck, which makes it a live sideboard card, but I don't think that it can be played in the maindeck, especially in tournaments that feature big shots like the Invitational.
At this point, I think it's best to run a Devour Flesh and some Azorious Charms with a good sideboard plan to up the removal count. The maindeck of my Esper Control deck doesn't really have "dead" cards. Since the first game against red is already so bad, I don't mind keeping the maindeck trim and lean against the other big decks in the metagame. Cards like Hero's Downfall do something that U/W/R could never do and slay planeswalkers for good. Detention Sphere is a great answer, but Hero's Downfall makes the world much safer for Esper players. With a maindeck that has some concessions to red and attempts to be a well-oiled machine, I made a few changes to help trump the majority of the field.
The win conditions in the maindeck are the usual suspects, with one Aetherling and two Elspeth, Sun's Champions with two Blood Baron of Vizkopas. I added a third Baron to the sideboard, and eventually I'd like to play a fourth when I find a card that is underperforming. The sideboard includes the mandatory countermagic that comes in against the control mirror along with a few Sin Collectors that do a ton of damage to our spell-wielding opponents. The one of Glare of Heresy provides our Disenchant effect against those control decks as well as a solid removal spell against white aggressive creatures.
That one-of could easily be a Sundering Growth if you want more juice against Whips and troublesome artifacts, but the Glare has more application in more matchups. Pithing Needle is a fantastic answer for the threats that we depend on Detention Sphere for. They basically are numbers five and six and provide us a very cheap answer to Underworld Connections, R/G planeswalkers, Whip of Erebos, and almost all noncreature issues. With these sideboard options, the only true "bad" matchup that remains is Mono-Red Aggro, and that is something that our lifelinking friend is going to try to help repair.
The Fiendslayer Paladin experiment is up in the air for this beta version of Esper Control. If it doesn't work out as well as I outlined earlier, then he will become more Doom Blades and another Blood Baron of Vizkopa. I'll be sure to update you guys on Twitter well before the tournament and after I get some more testing in on Magic Online. The next article I dish out will have a results breakdown as well as a matchup-by-matchup general strategy spiel. Thanks for reading friends, and see you guys in a couple weeks!