My Arena Decklists co-host Gerry Thompson has been giving me the hard sell on Esper Midrange ever since the early days of War of the Spark Standard, and I understand why.
Esper Midrange seems like everything I want in a Magic deck. Every micro-decision is incredibly impactful and it presents you with the type of games that can make you feel like a genius. Meanwhile, you have few truly awful matchups and solid sideboard plans against the vast majority of the metagame. And yet, I'm convinced the deck remains a worse option than a properly built version of Esper Control.
Structurally, Esper Midrange has real, pronounced flaws. The deck is incredibly reliant on hitting land drops one through five. This incentivizes higher land counts, but without the resource conversion mechanisms of Chemister's Insight and Search for Azcanta, the deck floods far too often in the late-game. Sorin is a solid answer to this issue, and I do appreciate that previous versions of the deck likely underutilized the powerful planeswalker. I've also seen versions of the deck that are beginning to lean very hard on Elite Guardmage and Search for Azcanta itself, which seems like another approach that admittedly may mitigate some of my concerns in this area.
The other flaw of this deck is that its maindeck configuration continues to stray from its more Fish-like roots. While the near-absence of countermagic is almost certainly a correct adaptation for the expected metagame, it does mean that Esper Midrange is apt to have a harder time against random decks in the format, as its clock remains somewhat anemic and its gameplan is tailored to beat the expected top decks.
In past formats, this would be a beautiful place to be, but War of the Spark Standard feels like it has a rich and still somewhat underdeveloped Tier 2. Is this the week where Jeskai SuperFriends is everywhere? Maybe Mass Manipulation strategies will finally get their due. How about Izzet Phoenix, which has won the last two Magic Online MCQs? Against all these decks, I would prefer the raw power of the more linear Esper Control.
And whether these flaws are ultimately answered in deckbuilding or not, I expect little to change the dynamic of the head-to-head matchup between Esper Control and Esper Midrange. While sideboard games remain close, Esper Control will likely to continue to carry the advantage in Game 1.
In games where these flaws do not surface, it admittedly feels like you're playing one of the more powerful midrange strategies we've seen in recent times. The incentives to pick up a version of Esper that is capable of "tractioning up" (as Michael Majors would say) are clear. Three-mana planeswalkers are everywhere, and Teferi, Time Raveler is rapidly becoming a focal point of the format. Obviously, attacking these threats will always yield a better return on both mana and cards than answering them on a one-for-one basis with something like Vraska's Contempt.
It would be easy to regard this as the death-knell in the comparison of Esper Control to Esper Midrange. However, options in Esper colors remain diverse, and a creatureless approach is still completely reasonable upon making appropriate concessions. The correct response to these planeswalkers is to increase answers while simultaneously minimizing their impact on your strategy. After a ton of play, I've settled on the following list for this week.