My deckbuilding energy is always devoted to the relevant format of the time. Standard seems to be the future according to the trends that Wizards of the Coast has been setting as of late, so my focus shifted full-time to Esper Dragons. However, we have a revived Modern format with the Season Two Invitational and GP Charlotte right around the corner. With back-to-back Modern tournaments, expectations from deckbuilders like myself to deliver quality options are high.
I've been asked for months about my opinions on Modern, and I had to, with great regret, respond with the truth…I had no interest. When people discuss what they would do if they won the lottery, my response is always a full dedication to card-playing across the world. I'd want nothing more than to drop the teaching I currently do and become a full-time Magician, but it's currently not in the cards. With my limited free time, I have no choice but to focus on the format of relevance and nothing more. Legacy allowed me to be lazy, playing the slightly altered Tom Martell Esper Stoneblade deck and amassing a great deal of wins doing so.
Sadly, Modern isn't that easy.
I piloted an original U/W Control deck to a 13-2 record at GP Richmond last year, so I began to tweak that deck to become viable in the current metagame. I was having issues to say the least, mainly because of the lack of disruption and the weakness of Spell Snare. Spell Snare was fantastic for me last year, but this time around I won't be battling against six Affinity decks. We need disruption, which means black cards, which of course means a return to Esper Control.
I've given readers an insight to my mad scientist approach before. Here, you can see a rough draft of Esper Control, but there's also another spicy brew in Hulk Smash, which I piloted to a winning record at the original Modern Pro Tour in Philadelphia many years back. I built both on Magic Online and got to work a few weeks ago, winning with both decks equally. Hulk Smash is explosive and faster than all of the other combo decks, and it feeds on matchups that are absent of Path to Exile plus counter magic, but the decks that play both are very tough to defeat.
Esper Control has a bit of a Legacy feel to it, and that comes with the 50/50 matchup percentage against the field. I love being even against most decks out there and trying to play real, grindy Magic to earn victories, but my love for innovative combo always battles my love for control. It may seem that I play identical decks year after year, but that is due to the utter lack of combo in Standard. The Spike in me has room for both archetypes, so let's figure out which one to pilot.
I'm still unsure on the best sideboard to build for decks like these. Combo decks are delicate and can only have so many cards to sideboard out and still be effective. I tested a Tasigur, the Golden Fang + Gurmag Angler conversion kit but was unimpressed, as the deck then turns into a bad delve deck, which isn't where I want to be in Modern. Cards that they would bring in to stop us also interact negatively with the creature package from the sideboard, so I ditched that idea rather quickly.
While the delve package was a flop, I did find some things that worked. Spellskite is the best answer I can think of to preserve some life and protect the combo from Path to Exile. Hurkyl's Recall gives us the necessary time against Affinity and bounces the Pithing Needle/Relic of Progenitus they may be packing. Pact of Negation comes in against every blue deck in order to tap out and still combo off successfully. Echoing Truth removes problematic permanents, and I usually bring at least one in to have an answer floating around in the deck. When comboing off, you're able to use infinite scry and draw the Echoing Truth if an opponent has Leyline of Sanctity in play. The Pithing Needle comes in against Scavenging Ooze and Relic of Progenitus. I typically cast it right when I draw it in order to prevent them from gaining any value out of their card. The best part about this combo deck is that it is immune to Abrupt Decay and similar removal, so those answers to Pithing Needle will be out of the deck.
One of the major changes I made was a replacement of Death Cultist with Mogg Fanatic, due to its ability to remove problematic creatures and Wrath of God an enemy's board when they have Leyline of Sanctity out. The Leyline of Sanctity situation has come up on multiple occasions and originally gave me a slight case of anxiety; however, I discovered that it really doesn't stop your combo. You're still able to kill all of their creatures at any time, are immune to board sweepers or removal due to Reveillark, and create an army of two Viscera Seer, two Reveillark, and a Mogg Fanatic. That kind of board power is enough to put away an opponent without use of the infinite damage combo.
The other major change I thought of was the use of Peer Through Depths. Peer Through Depths gives the deck more digging power to reach a Thoughtseize and/or Pact of Negation for protection, or the Footsteps of the Goryo to go off. I've toyed with Snapcaster Mage as a way to rebuy important spells, but the mana cost of Peer Through Depths makes it a more attractive option. Even though Peer Through Depths has been pretty good for me, it is the card I sideboard out the most for defensive spells in games 2 and 3. There may be a better card out there than this, but I haven't thought of it yet if there is.
Hulk Footsteps has been the definition of powerful in testing. It has so many ways to fill the graveyard with the combo pieces and doesn't care if they are drawn naturally or never found. As long as the pieces are in the graveyard or deck, you win automatically when it's time to revive the Protean Hulk. There are very few games I lose due to the inability to find a combo piece. The best piece of advice I have for you when playing this deck is to mulligan your opening hand if it doesn't contain one of the two pieces. Nearly every game I kept my seven with all card draw has ended in a failure to obtain one of the combo pieces. Mulliganing gives you another hand to see at least one of the pieces, and this deck mulligans better than the rest in Modern. The cards do nothing besides dig, drop in the graveyard, and kill your opponent. The only "dead" draws are the combo pieces, but they are easy fodder for discard when searching out the combo. Here is the order in case you need a quick reference when going off:
Sacrifice Mogg Fanatic to deal one point of damage
I added extra steps in the combo to remove all creatures from the deck and graveyard into play. This way, you have defense against sloppy play, spot removal gone wrong, and have an army in case hate of some sort prevents you from continuing the combo. These are all rare occurrences, but there is no reason to not be safe and bring the entire team out in case something goes astray.
I think this deck is awesome, and I'm about 50/50 to play it in the next Modern event I sign up for. I've been known to take wild decks like this one, Mass Polymorph, Blink Riders, or a variety of other strange decks to tournaments, and that will never change.
This deck went through quite the transformation from the last time we took a look at it. I went from a U/B Control shell to a U/W version, giving the deck more power out of the sideboard for aggressive decks. Another reason for the jump from the U/B Control shell is the weakness of Liliana of the Veil. She's at her utmost worst in this format for control decks, because of the increase in combo decks and creatures that have natural defenses against removal. The green decks that pack Collected Company laugh at our three mana planeswalker that comes in and at best kills a Birds of Paradise, and at worst removes a creature with persist. It's still good against U/R Twin, but that deck is on the decline these days in favor of versions with black for disruption and the general popularity of green.
So why run black then?
Inquisition of Kozilek, Lingering Souls, and the team of Sorins are the reasons to keep a third color in the loop. U/W Control on its own doesn't have the weapons to beat these new decks, but adding black gives us that aggressive potential that we haven't had since Lingering Souls was in Standard. It still feels good to use a disruption spell, cast Mana Leak, drop some souls, and untap with a planeswalker and clock them for a nice chunk of damage. That dimension of control doesn't usually exist, but with a black splash, it is present and accounted for. Lingering Souls is at an all-time high power level in Modern and gives control the necessary clock to help battle the fair and unfair decks of the format.
Nothing in this Esper Control list is susceptible to Abrupt Decay, which is huge because of its popularity. It's got all the major players that any control deck should have, especially Gideon Jura. This Esper Control deck even has its own Tarmogoyf renamed Tasigur, the Golden Fang, which has been truly stellar. The testing of this deck has consistently shown a one mana Tasigur with a Cryptic Command backup. That is a super powerful turn against any foe, and that same play is reversed often, casting a Supreme Verdict and then dropping the large threat on a clear board.
Control decks that have some aggressive potential are dangerous, and I feel that this is the time to strike with a deck like this. It all boils down to how saucy you and I are feeling before the upcoming tournaments. Should we stay in the comfort of our control shell, or smash people with a Protean Hulk combo deck that delivers the death blow on turn 3? Tell me which one you'd run between the two of these, why, and help me make that decision for the upcoming weeks!