There comes a time in every control mage's life where a card is previewed and instant love consumes them. That mage immediately drops prepping for the biggest Modern event of the year, tossing those Celestial Colonnades aside, and immediately begins brewing for the new Standard. This could be a common occurrence, or just what happens to me whenever a card like Oath of Kaya falls into my lap.
It is hard to put pen to paper and effectively convey how much of a game-changer this card is. Typically, established control decks are looking for slight upgrades here and there, but War of the Spark has thrown the traditional deckbuilding process out the window. There are vast upgrades to utility spells, win conditions, countermagic, and sweepers, and now the removal just got hit with adrenaline.
Moment of Craving was the go-to removal spell that Esper Control mages used to pad their life total a bit and give aggressive decks a huge headache Game 1. It always felt bad sleeving up a couple of copies in the maindeck because of how bad it is against midrange and control decks. This always felt like a necessary evil that many players chose to accept; however, I always thought Absorb alone could help against some of those faster decks. Mono-White Aggro is the one deck that would punish Esper Control players that made the decision to leave Moment of Craving in the sideboard, putting all the pressure on a mandatory sweeper like Cry of the Carnarium or Kaya's Wrath. That issue will be put to rest immediately upon the release of War of the Spark.
Oath of Kaya is a feel-good card that can be played in multiples in the maindeck. There are a few key differences between this spell and other removal that gains life that make this deckbuilding choice acceptable. Oath of Kaya does three damage to any target, instead of being a dud against decks without a legal target. This is huge, even for the mirror, as having the ability to shoot down a Teferi, Hero of Dominaria after the opponent tucked away your planeswalker is phenomenal. Obviously, Oath of Kaya isn't a card you want to draw multiples of in the Esper Control mirror Game 1, but it is a huge upgrade to other removal spells that have no application.
Oath of Kaya may not shine Game 1 against control decks, but it will dominate the sideboard games. Every control player has creatures in the sideboard that fall to Oath of Kaya. Hostage Taker and Thief of Sanity run the show in Game 2 and Game 3, making Oath of Kaya a comfortable answer to leave in. Not only will this hit the creature threats, it gives reach with yours and still can answer planeswalkers with a little help.
Esper Control hasn't had reach for quite some time. This hasn't been an issue because there are no creatures in the maindeck, and the sideboard is the first time we find ourselves wanting to dish out some damage in the first few turns. I am not convinced that Esper Control wants to toss a bunch of creatures in the maindeck with War of the Spark, but it is very tempting. New win conditions are presenting themselves and I will be testing them diligently.
The issue with adding creatures to a traditional Esper Control strategy is its negative effect on Augur of Bolas and Teferi, Time Raveler. Both new control gems reward the control player for staying true to purity, which involves registering as many instants and sorceries as possible. The more copies of Oath of Kaya, Search for Azcanta, planeswalkers, and creatures we add, the worse our two new heroes perform. This is something I took into consideration when crafting my initial testing list.
I want to make it clear that Oath of Kaya is a game-changer because of its application in matchups where you don't even want it. The negative of this Lightning Helix for Esper Control is just that it is not an instant or sorcery. Regardless of the matchup, Oath of Kaya will have at least some positive application and there are some matchups where it will be a stone-cold killer.
Mono-Red Aggro will not beat Esper Control with Oath of Kaya. That line was meant to sound hyperbolic, yet is very close to the reality that our red friends will face with War of the Spark.
Magic isn't a game decided completely by a decklist and skill. The variance is what makes this game great, but it is measurable in matchup percentages that are calculated in testing. Before Oath of Kaya, Esper Control was heavily favored in a best-of-three match. With the addition of this matchup nuke, I doubt anyone will ever want to sit across from you with a bunch of Mountains sleeved up.
Oath of Kaya not only derails the Mono-Red Aggro game plan with the removal spell and lifegain, it also takes them out by the knee with the residual effect. Usually on Turn 5, the Esper Control hero summons Teferi, Hero of Dominaria in order to dispatch one of the villainous red threats. After this play, the antagonist attacks down our planeswalker, continuing the assault with support spells. That line of play will have to be adjusted now because we gain even more life whenever any of our planeswalkers are attacked.
It seems like a bonus that doesn't affect us much, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. There isn't a decision that goes with aggressive players sending in a creature to kill our planeswalker if the sum of their attack doesn't kill us that turn. Now, with a few extra life points added, it may not be a possible line in certain situations. When they still must kill our planeswalker, toss those points right into the life bank and thank them for the donation.
The first take on Esper Control will have a lot of questions from you all. There are some new cards that I am dying to try out, and I want to push Teferi, Time Raveler's power-level limits. There is a chance that some of these new cards are busts, but the brewer in me must make sure no stone is left unturned. You'll notice a controversial shift from Chemister's Insight to Tamiyo's Epiphany, which is synergistic with Teferi, Time Raveler and historically potent. I played Foresee a great deal and enjoyed tournament success from it. This was also true for Read the Bones and Notion Rain before they begrudgingly took a backseat to Chemister's Insight. Tamiyo's Epiphany may suffer the same fate, but it is worth the hassle to be sure.
The rest of the deck is full of new cards, showcasing the mastery of War of the Spark from a control player's perspective. There are many more cards that didn't make it in the list for various reasons but may see some play down the road. Augur of Bolas simply didn't have the math to get included, God-Eternal Kefnet will see itself in a different build that uses Time Wipe with more instant and sorcery spells, and a list of removal will find its way into many control shells moving forward.
At this point I am positive that Oath of Kaya will be a fixture in Esper Control, regardless of the shifts in the metagame. There will always be aggressive decks, as well as midrange decks that have creatures with three toughness or less. Teamed with Absorb, Oath of Kaya is a lifetime member (until rotation) of Team Esper.