Many of us were expecting a control wave in Ravnica Allegiance. With two of the flagship guilds revealing themselves this set, it seemed like a forgone conclusion. We still haven't seen all the cards yet, but at this point it's looking like the Azorius Senate and Orzhov Syndicate have a few more creatures this time around. This led to some initial frustration, until the release of Kaya's Wrath a few days ago.
One of the biggest perks of Kaya's Wrath is we can call it "Wrath" again. Even with the rotation of Wrath of God many years ago, I have still clung to that phrase with my icy grip, even though many of the newcomers probably have no clue what I'm talking about. It's crazy to think that Wrath of God hasn't been Standard-legal for a decade, but lucky for us, we had other four-mana wraths come and go. Day of Judgment and Supreme Verdict were fine replacements until that fateful day when they took everything from us. It was announced that four-mana wraths and two-mana removal with minimal drawback were done for and that the development team was going to raise the premium on both of those effects. Doom Blade was the culprit from the spot removal side and Supreme Verdict was the last of its kind…until now.
A four-mana wrath set the bar for midrange and aggro decks to respect and fear. There was an understanding between us and them, which was the price they'd pay for overextending their forces onto the battlefield. This format norm added layers of skill to the game that haven't existed for many years. These days, players piloting decks full of creatures just summon them all without a care in the world, knowing we aren't playing a bunch of terrible sweepers to punish them. There isn't a moment where my opponents must try to get a read on me if I have it or not, or for them to determine if they can apply enough pressure while holding back some threats. This aspect of the game was deleted, and it dealt a heavy blow to control's viability for years.
Deploying a Kaya's Wrath on turn 4 isn't the biggest advantage of its converted mana cost. The ability to cast it and an additional spell, relatively early in the game, is a huge plus. The very threat of having it on turn 4 provides such an advantage that cards like Vraska's Contempt get even better. When players adapt to Kaya's Wrath and begin to play around it, we win in the end. Carnage Tyrant is a huge problem for control decks, but not to the same degree now. If you're piloting Esper Control with four copies of Kaya's Wrath in your maindeck, expect your win percentage to increase against the biggest development mistake since Emrakul, the Promised End. There's no need to get cute anymore with The Eldest Reborn or other sacrifice effects because of the catch-all nature of our new sweeper.
It's no accident that this four-mana destruction spell occurs the turn before Teferi, Hero of Dominaria arrives. One of the biggest weaknesses of Teferi decks is its inability to keep a clear battlefield before casting the best planeswalker since Elspeth, Sun's Champion. Now with a wrath on turn 4 and a Teferi on turn 5, there's nothing in the format that I fear on a molecular level. There's no deck that I think will roll us, which is due to the amount of options we have when building our new Esper Control deck.
Building around Kaya's Wrath is the trickiest part of the card. We learned that multiple colored spells aren't as difficult to cast as it would appear on paper. This was proven by the success of Niv-Mizzet, Parun, which is easily summoned on turn 6 from Jeskai Control on a regular basis. The same is true for Kaya's Wrath; however, there are some side effects we must come to grips with. The double blue situation is somewhat troubling, because we will only have sixteen blue sources if we run no Islands.
Adding basics that make Kaya's Wrath impossible to cast on turn 4 is dangerous, especially when the opponent is aware of the challenge we're facing. When they see an Island in the early game, they know we're not casting a sweeper on turn 4. This causes a boatload of problems when facing down aggressive decks that are just itching for the opportunity to unload their hand without repercussion. I decided to run one Island, which gives us seventeen blue sources. This is adequate for having access to Absorb and/or Sinister Sabotage on turn 3. Depending on the matchup, you may not even have to represent a Kaya's Wrath on turn 4, which makes this a moot point.
Running more than one Island diminishes our ability to control that gameplay when we need it the most. There is a world where a Guildgate could help prevent this situation from happening, but I'm going to thoroughly test the build without Guildgates first because of how painful it is to register one of these in a world where all shocklands are legal.
This is my first take on the archetype with a new metagame in mind. Golgari Midrange still has the tools to be terrifying, but there's a chance it gets even scarier with a third color added. The mana in Ravnica Allegiance Standard will be nearly perfect for any two-color deck to seamlessly add a third. For control players, it comes at a higher price. We tend to nurture our life total more, using every point to fight to the bitter end. Other decks throw away life left and right, which often doesn't cost them the game. Our life is a precious resource that shocklands heavily tax.
The manabase of this Esper Control deck contains eleven shocklands, but I may drop to ten. I plan on playing at least that many in order to satiate the blue demand, as well as guarantee our checklands enter the battlefield untapped. Playing a bunch of basics many be the way to go if our counterspells aren't worth it, but that realization will come after heavy testing in the new Standard.
I wrote extensively about Absorb ( here ), Precognitive Perception ( here ), and a small blurb on Mortify ( here ). I stand by the statements written, and I'm very excited to try them out in the upcoming weeks. Once the full set is released, I will prepare the testing gauntlet with my team and then make some changes based on what is discovered. The big question mark is still on Absorb.
I highlighted the dilemma in my earlier article about not being sure if Sinister Sabotage is better. Surveil is a powerful control ability, and gaining three life doesn't have the same game-saving effect of hitting a land drop early and binning a land late. The idea that gaining three life buys you the turn that the lost surveil would have given is preposterous. There are very few situations where I'd take a Healing Salve over not hitting my fourth land drop.
The eleven shockland manabase is the answer to that question. I'm not worried about the onslaught of creatures banging at the gate, but I am worried about dealing a significant portion of damage to myself through my lands. There are other clutch scenarios where hitting a Banefire or buying one more turn from a Carnage Tyrant makes Absorb a life saver. I don't think it's superior to Sinister Sabotage, but it hasn't been legal for quite sometime and needs to be vetted. If the surveil is sorely missed, Absorb will ride the bench for the foreseeable future.
Dovin, Grand Arbiter is the most exciting card I'm casting in the maindeck. I have debated the power level of the new Azorius leader with my colleagues, and I think many are doubting its potential. It doesn't fit best in a tempo maindeck, because it produces such small creatures at a slow rate. That negative is enough to get people off the Dovin train at the next stop; however, it doesn't matter when it's in a control shell.
The ability for it to protect itself is huge. We aren't looking for an explosive set of fliers to race into combat, but instead a well-managed defense mechanism that offers upside in the lategame. The lifegain off each minus activation is also a big deal for control fans, so I expect it to be the best three-mana planeswalker we've had since the days of Liliana, the Last Hope.
I've added one copy of Depose, but I'm not sure it'll stick around. I initially had it as the fourth Cast Down, which will be an absolute bomb in the new Standard. The biggest threats aren't legends, which makes it close to Doom Blade moving forward. I like Warrant//Warden and Depose//Deploy for their versality, but I don't see them overtaking a cheap, traditional removal spell just yet. If the format evolves to a slower, less creature-centered metagame, you'll see these new split cards overtake some of the less exciting options.
There were some cards I had my eye on that didn't make the cut just yet. I really like Seraph of the Scales as a possible maindeck card if the counterspells don't work out that well. If we move to a full tap-out style control deck due to the limited blue sources, I would probably add some sweet creatures with afterlife to help draw out more threats into a well-timed Kaya's Wrath. Seraph of the Scales also helps finish games, as well as blocks and kills anything in the process. Angel of Grace is another interesting card that I don't think fits in this style of control deck now. It provides a lategame boost in life total, flashes in for surprise blocks, and prevents death at instant speed, but still might not be good enough. Ravnica Allegiance is full of creatures, unfortunately, but at least they may have some control implications in the future.
The sideboard has a few new exciting elements as well. Deputy of Detention is no Detention Sphere, which means it will be a sideboard card for me moving forward, but it is a great removal spell for all threats in the sideboard games where our opponent's removal is much lighter. This will come in against most decks, and I may add additional copies if it tests well. Cry of the Carnarium is the beefed-up Golden Demise and was an easy swap once I saw it previewed. I only have one copy of Ethereal Absolution, but I plan on adding at least one more once the metagame is discovered. The new Curse of Death's Hold is such an amazing card if the format leans toward tokens, heavy creature decks, white-based aggro, or even decks that have Dovin, Grand Arbiter in it. It may cost one more than my favorite Curse of all-time, but it has an additional win condition and a Glorious Anthem built into it.