When I first came to plate up an Esper control list a few months ago, I wasn’t quite sure where to begin. I knew what cards were musts (Chemister’s Insight, Thought Erasure, Vraska’s Contempt, at least one Kaya, Teferi obv), but I didn’t know amounts, or fringe cards, or power-levels relative to one another.
I knew what worked against me in the past, a top 10 mono-red player for the first two seasons. So I started there, where most control players start- ‘how do we deal with the red menace”. Often with a control brew, the answer becomes glaringly obvious very early on. You can’t. Yet even so, every now and then a little hero deck comes along, the likes of which Dominaria has never seen before, and with the right mixture of uber-powerful cards that control deck dominates Standard for a period of time.
Now is that time. Esper is that brew.
When I first took pen to paper when starting the deck-building process (probably sometime after Mortify was spoiled) I started by building my deck against my favorite deck- mono-red. That meant Moment of Craving. 4 of. Mortify. 2 of. Absorb. 4 of.
That was a good starting point for red, one of the three most popular decks in bo1. The more I considered it, however, the more I realized that building my deck against RDW was also great against mono-white weenie, one of the three most popular decks at the Invitational, and by my accounts, one of the three most popular decks in the top 1,000 Standard Bo1 meta before the Invitational as well.
From these evaluations I came to a conclusion to play 2 Cry of the Carnarium early on. The biggest thing that I noticed in my top 4 Ladder run was that I kept time and again getting beaten to the punch by a flipped Legion’s Landing. It wasn’t always GG’s. Sometimes I could fetch myself the Spyglass or Ethereal Absolution. But more then not my opponent was just dumping their hand and running over me before I even had a chance to catch my breath.
2 Cry felt safe without overdoing it.
One card that’s missing from my top 4 run is Cast Down and I’d like to speak to that. I’ll be honest. It’s a card some of the time that I wish I had. But really, you don’t miss it all that much. 3 Kaya’s Wrath, 2 Vraska’s Contempts, Teferi tucks and Kaya’s healing with lots of card draw and a flipped Search for Azcanta is usually enough to get you there in case things get really out of hand.
Thought Erasure- 4 of. This is the sorcery that makes Esper always viable where Jeskai rarely was. Free information, free scry then you get to take their best threat. The biggest thing about this card when I evaluate it in terms of the bo1 format is that it makes it so two-landers are often a breeze and that 25 cards is preferable to 26. It’s pretty stream-lined control where things seem to be happening in a well coordinated pattern that would put any squadron of Oompa Loompas to shame. You just sort of get there.
As I looked through the landscape after the Invitational (and right before my top 4 run) I began to consider my other options for what I would face. And honestly, it all just kept coming up Esper. It was the elephant in the room that was a huge part of the deck-building process before the Invitational started. Huey was on it. Seth was on it. BBD was on it. Andrea was on it. Everyone. Almost. Exclusively. On. Esper. Control.
A lot of the work that went into that match-up revolved around two questions. To Teferi or not to Teferi? Which 75 are you bringing?
Nezahal, Primal Tide was the answer that I found myself fetching against other control decks nearly 90% of the time in those early match-ups. It’s still the answer I find myself acquiring the most. As the meta has slowed down so too has my approach. Nezy oftentimes takes the back-seat for greedier lines such as The Mirari Conjecture into Mastermind’s Acquisition searching back both Unmoored Ego and Devious Cover-Up. The key is to never flinch and to never get overzealous. I find myself holding onto Thought Erasures at times if I have a grip full of counter-spells. If you notice that you have the high-ground (A flipped Search, a resolved Teferi) it can be best to sit back and force them to throw away their hand disruption or Planeswalker removal spells. Make them fight back and you’ve already won.
Other cards that I found to be pretty essential were Lyra (to get RDW to just give up already) and probably, surprisingly, Sanguine Sacrament. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Sanguine Sacrament was a card that I dug out of my sideboard the second most of any card when I was on the path towards hitting Mythic in two-and-a-half days.
One thing that I’ve lost more sleep then I’d like to admit over is in what extra sweepers I want in my sideboard to search out in case I know I’m in a match-up that an extra sweeper could really help me out with. I ended up deciding on Cleansing Nova because of its versatility, and Cry because of how often I’m in desperation mode post-board where I don’t want to thin my deck of any low to the ground emergency answers. Kaya’s Wrath is a three-of in the main. If I really need a Kaya’s Wrath I can just get it from there.
Binding is there for Frenzy or about a million other problematic and common threats. Demystify was also there mostly for Frenzy if you needed it answered cheaply or a nearly flipped Search.
Kaya is a one of. She’s pretty awful against control (even if the occasional exiling of half a Chemister’s Insight) is nice but she’s key to shutting out red decks until you find your Teferi or your two Search for Azcantas. The ability to erase two points of damage every turn shuts the door on this match-up almost immediately. Add-in that she can mow down a bunch of 1 drop permanents and exile them to boot and you’ll too find her slowly creeping from your 75 into your 60. The occasional 20-ball to the face is always nice too. Your go.
Syncopate is my bit of tech and a card that I’ve been playing pretty much from the start. It answers the problem that I kept facing of polarizing match-ups very nicely. Good against control, good against aggro and all of it doing so in an efficient package. This deck lacks in early-drops and is filled in spades with 4 or more drops. Don’t get caught up in big splashy things when there’s a hyper-efficient, hyper-versatile answer to all of your nightmares still making it’s home in the format.
Chemister’s Insight is a card that I found myself cutting more of early and adding them back in later. The card is essential in the control mirror. Thought Erasure aside, your average play in this match-up is (like in most control match-ups) of the pass-go garden variety so being able to do something when your opponent says go is vital. Like with any control deck you want to hit your land drops and you want to have solid card advantage. Chemister’s Insight provides both.
Negate or not to Negate?
This is one of the final challenges, akin in design to the Trial of Knowledge that was first witnessed by the Planeswalkers on Amonkhet. The answer to this question is pretty straightforward. Should you be playing one Essence Scatter? Yes? Well, then don’t play Negate. Conversely, if you find that you shouldn’t be playing one Essence Scatter then I’d say go ahead and play one Negate.
Looking to the Future
Teferi or not to Teferi?
Ryan Tyson Top 4 Updated (Standard Bo1)
My next article will be on Grixis control. You can find my brew on Twitter @realgoblinking (-4 Ral, + 4 Dragon-God)
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