Being on the correct side of Magic history isn't always as easy as it may seem in the moment. Looking back, of course decks like Caw-Blade, Splinter Twin, and Birthing Pod were simply the best choices and anyone who still says otherwise are just saving face for some reason. In the moment, however, the urge to beat the best can easily blind one from becoming the best.
Is that what happened to me this past weekend when I sleeved up Esper Control?
After Pro Tour Dominaria, I was spent. Too exhausted to help Team Genesis register decks on Monday for our Team Standard Super League, I simply took a nap, and then another one right before we crushed Efro, Ben S, and Siggy. I mean, we beat them so badly that they could've been confused with extras for Natalie Portman's newest movie. After three long weeks of tournaments and testing, I just couldn't bring myself to preparing that hard for the Invitational, even though it meant a lot to me. I guess I just hit my ceiling and would need to use theory to craft my deck choices.
Modern was easy. I just called up Benjamin Nikolich and told him to ship me a Jeskai Control list plus sideboard guide. In return, I promised him an easy Round 1 opponent. He was skeptical of the exchange at first, but now he does not question the mystical powers of one Bard Narson.
I ended up going 5-3 in Modern feeling no matches were really decided by skill. What I mean is that I don't think I punted and got punished.
Standard deck selection was much more difficult though. I no longer wanted to play Approach of the Second Sun since it wasn't cool anymore, and I really wanted to keep this hipster branding going. That meant I would either need to move back to winning with just Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or find another deck. Something deep down inside me said that Teferi wasn't the only hero I needed or deserved, so I started to look for other options.
The first one that crossed my mind was just joining the Crazy 88s and picking up that chain mace everyone keeps talking about. I played the decks a ton in testing but still felt there was a chance that I wouldn't play it well enough. That, and maybe people would catch on by now. You know, all those thoughts that go through your head when you try to justify not playing the best deck.
But is it the best deck?
When we look back at this time in Standard, the story I believe people will talk about the most is how red splashing black had become a deck with almost no holes. All the creatures were rare, had multiple lives to live, and together left very few strategies to prey on it. If you think about it, there really isn't anything that just dominates the strategy simply because there's nothing out there that can. Cheap creatures, Scrapheap Scrounger, and Duress are great at beating the reactive decks. Glorybringer and Chandra pick off the midrange creatures. And Goblin Chainwhirler stops anyone from going wide against the deck. Goblin Chainwhirler's ability to scale is what's most egregious. On turn three, it might kill a creature and deal one damage to a player. On turn eight, you might see the card put a -1/-1 counter on upwards of four creatures, reduce the loyalty of two Planeswalkers, and then deal one damage to a player. That's just silly!
There was only one deck that interested me as it looked like it just might put up a good fight against R/B Aggro, and to no surprise, it was designed by the control legend, Guillaume Wafo-Tapa.
U/W Control had conditioned R/B Aggro to lean on Duress in the mid-game to exploit its control foes. Through testing I realized that one of the biggest weaknesses to that strategy was Torrential Gearhulk, as it was impossible to deny a control deck of an important spell like Disallow or Vraska's Contempt when you had six mana plus the Mythic Snapcaster Mage. I jammed a few leagues on Magic Online with the deck and was surprised by my findings. Oh, I wasn't surprised by how well the deck did against R/B Midrange, but how ridiculous the MTGO metagame had become due to the upcomming RPTQ. I played against Bant Ramp, Jeskai Control, B/G Ramp, Mono-Red Aggro, and what could only be described as every mythic in the colors green and white. Online testing wasn't going to get it done.
Brian Braun-Duin and I pulled out the folding table and went back to shuffling up decks just like we had done the week prior in preparation for Pro Tour Dominaria. We sleeved up Esper Control and R/B Aggro before realizing that testing more Goblin Chainwhirler versus Teferi may make both of us go mad. We played twenty games before one of us began to bald from frustration. Luckily it wasn't me.
My last resort was to get into contact with Guillaume Matignon to ask him some questions about the deck, so that's exactly what I did. I spent an hour in communication with the 2010 Player of the Year runner-up, and his wisdom was exactly what I needed to take Esper Control to a 12-3-1 finish in the two events I played it in (the Invitational and the Standard Classic). The deck felt both great and terrible though. I'm unsure at the moment if the deck is inherently flawed, but I mulliganed into "non-contest" oblivion in so many of my losses with the deck. When I didn't draw horribly, I crushed my opponents fairly easily. It was a unique experience all-in-all, and I learned a ton about the deck I'm happy to share soon in my sideboard guide. There's just one more thing I want to say about the deck before we get there.
Counterspells are absurd right now. Maybe the best they've ever been in Standard, and it's all thanks to Goblin Chainwhirler. That card has single-handedly made control as viable as it is today. You see, Goblin Chainwhirler pushes out strategies that play tokens, Glint-Sleeve Siphoner, Llanowar Elves, or anything else that can give control decks trouble. Instead, people are forced to play more powerful effects to go over the top of Goblin Chainwhirler which makes counterspells so good. In so many games, I simply just cast 2-3 counterspells then whatever was left in my hand. Sometimes it was Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Other times it was Glimmer of Genius into Torrential Gearhulk. It didn't really matter as long as I stopped everything after my opponent's first play. Sure, that one thing was dealing damage to me, but I never had to fear things slipping through the cracks when my opponent was pretty much forced to tap out each turn for their Chandra, Torch of Defiance, Glorybringer, or whatever else they had in their hand.
Counters are great and I really don't see me doing anything but casting them for the longest time.
Here's what I played in the Classic on Sunday which was only one card off what I played in the Invitational:
Like I said, cards like Essence Scatter and Syncopate have become premium two-drops in control strategies. One could argue that decks like this suffer in the control mirrors game one without Negate, but that's not entirely true. Having four Glimmer of Genius, two Field of Ruin, and a Forsake the Worldly really help out when it comes to making sure you play out a good enough game against other control decks. Plus it's not like they have so much more than you that it's impossible to win the game. I only lost one control "mirror" game one all weekend, and don't see any reason why I'd need to make any changes to the maindeck for these matchups.
Mono-Red Aggro should be a slightly better matchup than R/B Aggro in game one if they don't have access to Scrapheap Scrounger, and slightly more difficult if they do. The truly important aspect of these game ones though is who's on the play. Counterspells play an important role in the early turns, and on the play they should only resolve one early threat before you start dealing with everything. That damage doesn't really add up compared to when they can get down more than one threat before you can react to future threats.
Just remember that it's important to prioritize opening hand counterspells than removal. If you don't you'll end up only having counterspells in your hand to deal with more problematic threats they've found time to resolve when you were scared of taking another hit from a Kari Zev, Skyship Raider.
We don't sideboard much against Mono-Red Aggro or R/B Aggro because we are playing this deck to beat these strategies. There's a world where I will eventually want one or two copies of cards like Moment of Craving or Essence Extraction, but for now I think those types of cards aren't necessary. I've also toyed with bringing in The Scarab God against these decks, but I don't think it's correct.
This matchup is similar to Mono-Red Aggro, but they have more problematic threats, like Scrapheap Scrounger. They also have Pia Nalaar, which is surprisingly one of the best cards against us. It's mostly due to the fact that it's difficult to utilize the two-for-one power of a Torrential Gearhulk against this card, but it's also a great threat against Teferi, Hero of Dominaria as well. Saying that you should try to counter this threat is a little silly though as you're trying to counter everything!
Out (on the draw):
In (on the draw):
Out (on the play):
In (on the play):
R/B Midrange (No Bomat Courier):
This is the easiest of the three Goblin Chainwhirler matchups, but only if you sideboard correctly. One of the ways this deck has been preying on control is that they still keep in a ton of anti-creature cards in their deck after sideboard. You have to think of this deck as being the closest to Mardu decks in the past, like Vehicles. They will have a different strategy after sideboard where they only really have a couple Heart of Kiran, Scrapheap Scrounger, Goblin Chainwhirler, and Rekindling Phoenix as early threats. Outside of that they have a plethora of non-creature spells that love to play against hands full of creature removal.
I'm still unsure if you should take Search for Azcanta out all the time, but I do know you need to make sure to interact with them even if they aren't deploying as many creatures. They have cards like Argul's Blood Fast, Chandra, Torch of Defiance, and Karn, Scion of Urza that all can outpace an early Search for Azcanta.
Esper Control With Aether Hubs
Esper Control mirrors are really interesting as both decks have a high density of removal spells for the opposing threats. This means that it can sometimes be difficult to actually win the game if you're too headstrong in the mid-late turns. This makes Search for Azcanta that much more important as it's the card that can run away with the game. You can use a flipped Azcanta to generate velocity as you keep casting cards over the course of a few turns, which can diminish an opponent's resources rather quickly. Keep in mind though that Search for Azcanta will not beat a lategame The Scarab God, which many Esper Control decks play in their maindeck to gain an advantage in the mirrors. Make sure you don't fall victim to someone who sneaks one of these to the battlefield even in their final moments of a game. It can still take over a game from the most dire of positions.
The best way to learn control mirrors, though, is not by reading about them, and instead playing them yourself. I encourage anyone who wants to play this deck to find a friend and get through as many game one mirrors as they possibly can as I've found the better player to win many of them.
Seeing Aether Hub is important as it almost assuredly means they have Glint-Sleeve Siphoner after sideboard.
Out (on the draw):
In (on the draw):
Out (on the play):
In (on the play):
Sideboard games play out similar to game ones, but there's more "KO" cards like Argul's Blood Fast. One player can just run away with a game if these resolve.
That's why I don't really like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner in my sideboards for these control mirrors. Sure they can be nice when they aren't dealt with, but I'd much rather just have the more powerful cards than a cheeky pivot. On the draw you're forced to delude your deck with as many answers as they have Glint-Sleeve Siphoners, but on the play it's a different story where you're advantaged by not having them. That's because you have answers to them and the other creatures in their deck, and you will draw answers all game long. So many times I have seen an opponent in a tenuous spot magnify it by drawing small-ball creatures in the later turns. I honestly don't think they are worth it, but I'll happily be proven wrong as I do love me a Dark Confidant knock-off.
Guillaume Matignon Esper Control
Your advantage in this matchup is having more "draw-twos," compared to them. It's so difficult to actually spend a counterspell on Glimmer of Genius at any stage of the game, making them almost uncounterable. This allows you to pull ahead on land drops and start sculpting a perfect hand. Now, many of my opponents didn't have that many Essence Scatter this past weekend, which I think will change moving forward since the card is actually just amazing against almost every matchup now. That said, the lategame is again extremely convoluted, which makes it important to test this matchup before playing Esper Control in a tournament. All I can really say is that you'll find yourself doing weird things with your cards, like putting Torrential Gearhulks back into your deck with Teferi, Hero of Dominaria so you never get two of them killed by Settle the Wreckage or Fumigate. This also lets you use them all on cards like Disallow, effectively giving yourself more counterspells.
This matchup is extremely in Esper Control's favor after sideboard. It's just difficult for them to interact with all of your early permanents and counterspells. At some point you'll pull away with whatever advantage you find, and crush them in card advantage plus tempo. Afterall, U/B normally beats U/W in control mirrors.
I really don't see the appeal of playing this deck, but I know there's a big following for this deck, so I'll just say I don't like it. No need ruffling any feathers today. This matchup is pretty good for us game one as they have the same creature removal as we do, but they don't have targets for them. We have more counterspells, card advantage, and a more focused gameplan. All of this comes together in a good ole fashion one-sided beating.
Out (on the draw):
In (on the draw):
Out (on the play):
In (on the play):
Things get more difficult after sideboard since they now have zero dead cards in the matchup, but that doesn't mean they are all of a sudden favored. Now I do believe our sideboard plans will have to evolve as their strategy should continue to improve, but I still believe being the more controlling deck to be the side of the fight you want to be on. I just think it's easier to pull away with the game if you deal with their early card advantage leaving them without the density of counterspells and Glimmer of Genius that we have. Eventually we will flip a Search for Azcanta that they can't deal with and run away with the game.
Don't worry about how you'll win the game though. I think having too many win conditions is the easiest way to find yourself in difficult positions as that's the easiest way for them to resolve their early creatures. which lets them tempo us out.
Well, that's Esper Control! Hope this article helps you out in the next couple weeks, and I should be back in the near future with updates as this is most likely the deck I'll be playing next weekend at Grand Prix Pittsburgh. In the comments below be sure to send any questions you may have, and I'll do my best to answer them in a timely manner. As for me, I'm now going to take a much needed break in North Dakota, visiting family after four weeks of important tournaments in a row. I'm spent!