What a time to be alive!
Esper Control is arguably the best deck in Standard, which brings a level of happiness that's difficult to express through a keyboard. I tend to favor this shard more than others, but that doesn't mean I'll stay the course when the vessel has multiple leaks. When Esper Control is flawed, I move to other control strategies quickly. A few sets ago, Grixis Control was my pet project that I worked on tirelessly and found great success with. I was doing so well with Grixis Control that I was in the running for Constructed Master, even though it was a longshot going into the final Pro Tour.
After that season, I shifted my attention to Jeskai Control with the release of Guilds of Ravnica. I did try to make Esper Control work before moving to Jeskai, but the mana wasn't consistent enough to give the deck a chance in the new format. Esper Control was playable and decent in Guilds of Ravnica Standard, but now it's back to being dominant in Ravnica Allegiance Standard.
Not much was printed that helped Esper Control move to the front of the metagame tier line. In terms of new cards in the deck, just Absorb, Kaya's Wrath, and Precognitive Perception made it into the starting lineup. This list excludes the mana fixing that has revived the archetype, but that isn't what brought the masses into Team Esper. That said, the few cards that Ravnica Allegiance did bring along with it have fit the archetype beautifully and have repaired issues with control in Standard in general.
The incidental lifegain with Absorb and a four-mana Wrath effect in Kaya's Wrath were desperately needed to get control back on track. It was a ridiculous move to abandon four-mana sweepers in the first place, but I'm very happy that the research team arrived at the same conclusion we all had this whole time. Standard has been dominated by creatures for quite a bit now, but the tables have turned.
What makes Esper Control so great is not just the new cards but the spells that were collecting dust prior to Ravnica Allegiance.
I wrote multiple articles that praised Thought Erasure after it was released months ago, noting that it was the best cheap spell that control has had in years. I like it better than any two-mana counterspell, removal spell, or card draw spell that we've seen in Standard for multiple rotations. It's like a Transgress the Mind but hits any card and helps to hit land drops with ease. When it was released, I couldn't believe what I was seeing, due to the weakness of control spells in the last few years. I was more excited to get back to using Thought Erasure than casting Absorb, even though its nostalgic feeling brought me great warmth.
Due to the surveil keyword attached to our hand disruption, the need for cheap card draw has been eliminated from Esper Control. No more consideration for Anticipate / Opt style cards or a 27th land while we have six ways to help us hit our third land! Thought Erasure is joined by Search for Azcanta to give any Esper Control player an all-upside early game, hitting land drops, removing threats, and transforming our enchantment to a powerful card advantage engine in the late game. With weak card draw removed from consideration, Notion Rain and Precognitive Perception take center stage.
Both card draw spells in this list are phenomenal role players in control. Notion Rain is the best choice for hitting land drops in the mid-game, which are essential for casting Kaya's Wrath and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria on time. It's backbreaking to miss your fourth land drop when facing a horde of creatures, so Notion Rain is tagged in to help prevent that outcome. Chemister's Insight is the key difference you'll see when comparing my Esper Control lists to others'.
Chemister's Insight is one of the most overrated cards that continues to see play in control decks that have access to better options. The damage from Notion Rain is mitigated with Absorb, Moment of Craving, and Vraska's Contempt. There are few decks out there that punish you for early damage through shocklands and card draw, which makes the life loss have a minimal effect on your win percentage. Only against Mono-Red Aggro do you really feel the pain from Notion Rain, and if the deck was more popular, there would be a discussion to reduce the number used. With Mono-Red Aggro being handled easily by midrange and control decks, I don't foresee us needing to remove our card draw spell anytime soon.
Searching four cards deep on Turn 3 is much better than two on Turn 4. Glimmer of Genius was a busted Magic card because of how far you could go through your deck to ensure optimal plays on Turn 5 and beyond. Chemister's Insight leaves control mages praying that a land is in the top few cards of there deck that they desperately need. Glimmer of Genius all but guaranteed a Turn 6 Torrential Gearhulk, where Chemister's Insight has us sweating to land Teferi, Hero of Dominaria on time. With seven tap-out spells on Turn 4 in most Esper Control lists, a card draw spell in that slot loses some value. Notion Rain shares the curve with Absorb and Mortify, but neither spell is as make-or-break as Kaya's Wrath on Turn 4.
The heavy card advantage is achieved with Precognitive Perception in this version of Esper Control. If I can't convince you off the Chemister's Insight bandwagon, this is the only swap that you could make without affecting the integrity of the curve and game flow. I think Precognitive Perception is miles above Chemister's Insight, but they both play similar roles in Esper Control. The search for land drops is not the goal of these two card draw spells, but the ability to move through a chunk of your deck and gain card advantage is. Notion Rain plays the best in the early game, but Precognitive Perception can bury an opponent upon resolution.
Where It's Easy
- Wilderness Reclamation Decks (Bant/Temur)
- Esper Control
- Rakdos Aggro
- Azorius Aggro
- Gates decks (Nexus/Colossus)
- Izzet Drakes
This version of Esper Control is fine-tuned to defeat slow decks that drag games, as well as lightning-fast aggro decks that depend on creatures to win. The control/combo decks are our best matchups on the back of powerful hand disruption, a healthy amount of maindeck counterspells, and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. It also helps that we have a copy of Dawn of Hope, which brutalizes the mirror Game 1.
Our Esper Control opponents have Mortify, Absorb, and a Negate maindeck, but their trump card is Chromium, the Mutable. The poor Elder Dragon has barely any text in the mirror Game 1, being swept away by a Kaya's Wrath that was rotting in our hand the entire game. Even though our bullet is answerable by Mortify, their enchantment removal is taxed heavily Game 1. Between that and Search for Azcanta, they face too many cards that must be answered immediately.
The most aggressive decks that have legions of Soldiers marching onto our battlefield are just as easy to deal with. Using four maindeck Kaya's Wrath and three Cry of the Carnarium from the sideboard, decks that hope to attack us to death will be disappointed. Whenever there's a good Infest effect in Standard, I'm never worried about being overrun by one- and two-drop creatures. It's easy to say that with the revival of a four-mana sweeper, but you'll be hard-pressed to find me feeling sorry for the poor aggro players that have it tough these days. The sideboard continues to be unforgiving, putting us to six spot removal spells in the early game, tough win conditions that must be dealt with immediately, and enough lifegain to end the game above twenty life.
The Gates and Izzet Drakes decks both fall to not having enough pressure early on, as well as being weak to the phenomenal removal that Esper Control has. I never lost to Izzet Drakes last season and that trend has continued with Ravnica Allegiance. Their power level boosted with Pteramander, but that didn't change our gameplan in the slightest. With four Cast Downs, three Mortifies, three Vraska's Contempts, and an unbeatable Profane Procession, Izzet Drakes has an impossible time keeping their threats alive. Even with Spell Pierce and Dive Down, Esper Control overwhelms their resources, fights on their turn, and untaps with a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria that's very difficult for them to deal with.
The Gates decks in Standard have a lot of potential in the future, but not in a world of Esper Control. Guild Summit is the only spell that must be prevented from resolving in order to come out with a control victory. The three-mana enchantment is devastating for us, but all the other cards in both versions are easily handled. Neither Gatebreaker Ram nor Gate Colossus has enters-the-battlefield triggers, so our removal lines up perfectly and they eventually run out of resources when these threats are dealt with.
Where We're Even
- Sultai Midrange
- Mono-Red Aggro
These two matchups are favorable, but not by a mile. Sultai Midrange would have been a tough matchup if Kaya's Wrath wasn't around, as Carnage Tyrant was the threat that prompted the most control concessions in Guilds of Ravnica Standard, which isn't the case anymore. There are too many competitive aggro decks, as well as control decks that have multiple answers to Carnage Tyrant to justify its play. Most lists have a couple floating around, but the main endgame card is now Hydroid Krasis. Hydroid Krasis looks frightening to play against, but it's much easier to defeat than you'd expect. Between Thought Erasure, our own card advantage to trump theirs, and countermagic to stop Find // Finality, Esper Control emerges victorious over the new midrange deck.
Mono-Red Aggro has been getting pushed around by everyone, including Esper Control. Absorb, Cry of the Carnarium, Moment of Craving, Lyra Dawnbringer, and Mortify are all reasons why red players aren't happy to see a Hallowed Fountain Turn 1. This matchup is still losable due to the amount of Lightning Bolt effects in Standard, but it's a lot easier to beat than I would have ever thought at this point in the format.
Where We Struggle
- Esper Midrange
- Mono-Blue Aggro
I have already altered my list for this article to address the boom in Mono-Blue Aggro. With the addition of Ptermander and Essence Capture, the aggro players that love Islands are back in full force. With Alexander Hayne's proven dominance with the deck on MTG Arena, we must adjust Esper Control accordingly. I moved a fourth removal spell to the maindeck, removing one Precognitive Perception in the meantime. I'm between cutting that, the Dawn of Hope, or a Vraska's Contempt. It's a tough decision, because even with the extra removal spell, the matchup is tough Game 1. The sideboard does help, with multiple copies of Cry of the Carnium, two more cheap removal spells, and flyers that can potentially gain life and interact with their threats. I've been doing decently against Mono-Blue Aggro recently, but it's easily one of the tougher matchups out there.
Esper Midrange is the only bad matchup in the competitive Standard metagame. Even though we can struggle against Mono-Blue Aggro, it's quite beatable. The issue with Esper Midrange is their maindeck use of Thought Erasure, Disinformation Campaign, and Hero of Precinct One that must be killed on the spot. We can't rely on Kaya's Wrath because of their ability to strip it from your hand during a prior turn. Even this bad matchup is winnable, but it's the deck I would prefer never to sit across from at a tournament.