"Hey, I think we broke it for this weekend. Everyone who plays this deck is either going 5-0 or 4-1 on Magic Online. If you get some time this week, you should probably just see it for yourself."
The day after I wrote the book on winning Sultai mirrors, I got this message from Oliver Tomajko talking about Esper Control and I was skeptical to say the least. How could I believe that a deck we ruled out as overhyped and unplayable just a week prior was suddenly the best deck in Standard? What world were we living in? As it turns out, a lot can change in a week.
I quickly became the fifth person in our group chat to put up a 5-0 performance with Esper Control and was thoroughly impressed. After some extensive work on the sideboard plans by Bobby Fortanely, everyone in the group played this list, including Cain Rainhardt, whose team Top 8'ed the Open, and Abe Corrigan, whose team finished in the Top 16.
Nothing about the maindeck really screams that it's anything special, so you're probably rolling your eyes and thinking to yourself:
"Oh wow, you put a pile of counterspells and removal spells in the same deck alongside Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. What masterful deckbuilding."
I hate to break it to you, but sometimes, the simple things prove to be the most effective. Esper Control has a lot of amazing tools to battle the metagame right now. With efficient answers with lifegain attached to beat Mono-Red Aggro, Kaya's Wrath to clean up Carnage Tyrant, and Thought Erasure to nip a Hydroid Krasis in the bud, the cards Esper has access to are flexible and build a strong shell on their own.
Where the real ingenuity begins is in the sideboard, where there's some inspiration from Wyatt Darby's Esper Midrange deck showing with four copies of Thief of Sanity.
If you've played at all with any of the major Esper strategies in Standard right now, you know the power of Thief of Sanity quite well. The card takes over the game in the most satisfying way possible; you get to bury your opponent in a pile of their own cards, sometimes finding cool synergies between theirs and your own. It's quite the experience.
In Esper Control it's even better.
In the sideboard games I played against Sultai Midrange over the weekend, my opponents would often keep hands with an assortment of Duress, Negate, Disdainful Stroke, and planeswalkers, ready to play a long grindy game of Magic. Then you cast this creature on Turn 3 when they've sideboarded out all their removal spells and their heart sinks. What can they do? Assassin's Trophy it to let me cast Teferi next turn? Spend their Krasis on Turn 4 and hope it gets an opportunity to block? Tap out for Vraska's Contempt, leaving the battlefield empty for Esper to capitalize on? These things snowball quickly and are hard to come back from.
In a lot of matchups, playing Thought Erasure into Thief of Sanity is like the new Thoughtseize into Pack Rat. Taking their one important card or one answer is backbreaking when your threat promises to take over the game if you untap.
Unlike this iconic duo, though, it's uncertain to me how long these kinds of plans will remain unknown and catch people off guard, and if they aren't catching people off guard, how good will they become? By Round 6 of the Classic, my opponents were not only aware of Thief of Sanity as my sideboard plan, but they had adapted to include it in their own sideboards or leave in cards like Hostage Taker and Ravenous Chupacabra to hedge against it. My gut says it's a strong enough plan to keep around even if it's not surprising, but I'd keep my ear to the ground and peep what happens on Magic Online over the week to see how well it's being combatted.
The other thing that I think helped contribute to Esper's success this weekend doesn't have as much to do with what cards were in my deck, but the cards that weren't in others'.
At the dawn of Ravnica Allegiance Standard, we saw decks trying to fight the extremes of the format – Mono-Red Aggro, Bant Nexus, and Esper Control – get eaten up by Sultai Midrange. These decks with powerful tools to outmaneuver and outmuscle the Esper Control players just can't seem to contend anymore with the rest of the format, leaving room for control to rise.
Another, more viable strategy I see as very threatening to Esper's dominance that was severely underplayed over the weekend was Azorius Aggro.
- 3 Adanto Vanguard
- 4 Benalish Marshal
- 4 Dauntless Bodyguard
- 2 Deputy of Detention
- 2 Hunted Witness
- 4 Skymarcher Aspirant
- 4 Snubhorn Sentry
- 1 Tithe Taker
- 4 Venerated Loxodon
Esper Control's removal is expensive to be able to play the most flexible answers possible, and all the various Savannah Lions are very good at punishing that.
On top of the low-cost threats in their deck, they have access to a great number of resilient threats and a fast Adanto, the First Fort can be too much to grind through for Esper most games. In the sideboard games, Kaya's Wrath being easily countered on Turn 4 can make the game trivial for Azorius Aggro, and in Dallas, I expect this deck to be some trouble for that reason.
Taking these things into consideration for Dallas, if I play Esper again, I expect to play something like this:
The deck felt so good that changing much doesn't really make sense to me as far as the cards I'm playing, other than maybe a nod towards Azorius Aggro now that it has shown what it can do.
My sideboard plans will be along these lines:
VS. Sultai Midrange
In this matchup, the cards I think matter most are Vivien Reid and Find. If my hand doesn't contain Thief of Sanity, I feel like I need a very good reason to keep it, like Search for Azcanta or Thought Erasure, because Sultai can be so disruptive and set up into a Hydroid Krasis before you can stabilize. This package, lovingly named "The Six Criminals" by Oliver Tomajko in testing, is your bread and butter against Midrange decks.
VS. Mono-Red Aggro
Do your best to preserve your life total where you can and try to save Mortify for Experimental Frenzy if you don't have another answer to it. This matchup feels scary at times if you're on the draw and don't have an Absorb but has felt pretty favored every time I've played it. Just avoid taking too long to shut the door, as their deck is full of burn spells and you're never really out of the woods if your life total is low.
VS. Any Nexus of Fate Deck
My only two losses in the Classic on Sunday were to Ali Aintrazi's take on Simic Nexus with a playset of Frilled Mystic maindeck that drastically changed the dynamic of the game every time he cast one. A counterspell that cannot be caught by Negate, plus a threat that puts pressure on the battlefield, is very scary, but barring that, the matchup is like any control mirror. Be careful not to flinch too soon, and don't be afraid to let a Nexus of Fate resolve from time to time if you can counter the real prize later.
A strategy that emerged early on in our testing of the format for Esper in Game 1 is to focus on only answering the kill conditions of the Nexus decks rather than the Nexus when possible. I'd only do that in games where you don't have a Teferi but have a lot of mana and reactive spells, though; otherwise you're better off playing toward making an emblem and whittling them down.
VS. Azorius Aggro
This is a matchup I haven't played much yet, but I suspect the plan of tapping out to answer all their creatures is the best one we have available to us. Don't be afraid to cast removal spells on your turn to play around convoke spells, but also consider if you can convince your opponent to trade a Spell Pierce with a Moment of Craving so you can resolve Cry of the Carnarium the following turn. This is the matchup I'll keep in mind while testing and building the most this week, so feel free to deviate if you find something you think works!
My called shot for SCG Dallas is that people will come prepared for Esper, but if Esper comes prepared for them, it won't be going down quietly. It's really refreshing to see Standard in a place of rotating threats and answers, so I hope the trend continues through Dallas into the Mythic Championship and beyond.