Today I want to discuss the ins and outs of the Esper Control deck I played at Mythic Championship III in Las Vegas this past weekend. This exact same list was played by myself, Siggy, Luis, Martin Juza, and Matt Nass.
Esper Control at Mythic Championship III
4 Drowned Catacomb 4 Glacial Fortress 4 Godless Shrine 4 Hallowed Fountain 4 Isolated Chapel 4 Watery Grave 1 Plains 1 Swamp 2 Basilica Bell-Haunt 2 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin 4 Thought Erasure 3 Kaya's Wrath 3 Narset, Parter of Veils 2 Command the Dreadhorde 1 The Elderspell 3 Oath of Kaya 4 Teferi, Time Raveler 3 Cast Down 4 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 1 Despark 1 Dovin's Veto 1 Cry of the Carnarium Sideboard 1 Cry of the Carnarium 2 Duress 2 Despark 3 Lyra Dawnbringer 2 Nightveil Predator 1 Ixalan's Binding 2 Dovin's Veto 2 The Elderspell
Why Esper Control over Esper Hero?
I think Esper Hero is a very good deck (the Esper core is just absurdly powerful), but we really missed Kaya’s Wrath when playing it. It’s a deck that does a lot of digging—with Teferi, Narset, and Search for Azcanta—but we felt like without some sort of big spell against creatures you were often digging into more digging until you eventually died.
Adding Wraths does a lot to solve this problem. It slots naturally into the deck since you have planeswalkers (like both Teferis) that punish your opponent heavily for trying to be conservative. Kaya’s Wrath puts them in the squeeze; they either leave one creature out at a time and lose to Teferi or they play out their whole hand and lose to Wrath. On top of that, green decks have risen in popularity and we expected Gruul and Nissa decks to be very popular, both of which Wrath is great against. In some cases, we found that having Wrath drastically changed our game 1 matchup (against, for example, Bant decks).
Plus, we thought Cast Down was significantly better than Tyrant’s Scorn right now as it kills Crackling Drake, Nullhide Ferox, and Skaargan Hellkite among others, and not playing Hero let us make that swap without feeling bad about it.
Why 2 Search for Azcanta?
Search for Azcanta is criminally underplayed right now. We knew that we liked our deck more than Esper Hero versus the rest of the field, but swapping out Hero of Precinct One for Kaya’s Wrath is clearly going to make the deck worse in the mirror, so we had to compensate somewhere. People don’t play Mortify nearly as much as they used to, so Search for Azcanta can often just come down and decide the game.
Why 2 Command the Dreadhorde?
This is another card that makes your matchup in the mirror better, since players tend to trade back and forth, and then you land this haymaker. It’s also your best card against some of your bad matchups (the other Dreadhorde decks), and it can even be good against aggressive decks in some spots.
Why 1 Cry of the Carnarium, 1 Despark, 1 Dovin’s Veto, and 1 The Elderspell? Can’t you just decide?
With 2 Search for Azcanta and 3 Narsets (as well as a bunch of card drawing from Teferis), we felt there was a lot of value in having different cards for different situations, since you saw so many cards over the course of the game. Not everyone plays a Despark main, for example, but I’ve won game 1s through The Immortal Sun because I used Search for Azcanta to find Despark, game 1s that a version without it simply would not have won.
I also think it’s important to have at least one counterspell. You’re not a fast deck, so opponents will get to execute their game plan. Someone with Command the Dreadhorde or Nexus of Fate will probably get to play these cards since you’re not going to be winning before they find them. Obviously, having one counterspell won’t solve everything, but it does help (especially if you’re digging for it). Then, postboard, there are two more, and now you can actually stop them from doing things. I see people who have 0 counterspells in the 75 and I can’t see how that’s right.
Sideboarding is the hardest part of this deck because what you want really varies depending on what they have. Sometimes you will know what they have (because of something they played, or because you know them, or because it’s game 3, or because decklists are public), but sometimes you won’t, and then you have to hedge a little bit. Right now there are a lot of different builds of each deck in Standard, and while you have the tools to answer almost all of them with Esper Control, you have to know what you’re answering.
Take, for example, Nissa decks. You need to deal with Nissa, and you have several cards that do that: The Elderspell, Dovin’s Veto, Duress, Despark, Ixalan’s Binding. It’s unlikely you’ll be bringing all of these in, so you have to figure out what else they have. If they have The Immortal Sun and Shalai, maybe you want Despark. If they have Teferi and Tamiyo, you want Binding. If they have Mass Manipulation, you want Veto and Duress. The key here is you have to choose which ones you think are better answers for the deck overall. It’s important not to overload on answers to the star card of their deck and lose to the supporting cast. You don’t want to board in 15 cards to deal with Nissa and end up losing to Jadelight Ranger.
Sideboarding also depends on whether you’re on the play or on the draw. A card like Oath of Kaya, for example, is a much better answer to Goblin Electromancer if you’re on the play, so remember to take things like that into when making your sideboarding decisions. I will try to give you all the information I can in this sideboard guide, but it really does depend on what your opponent is playing and what’s going on.
The Esper Mirror
I used to hate the Esper mirror. It was all about drawing Chemister’s Insight to make your land drops, resolving a Teferi, and untapping with two Absorbs in your hand. Luckily, this is not how the Esper mirror plays out anymore. Since Little Teferi drove away the counterspells, the games are very back and forth, and cards like The Elderspell can completely swing it. This is why Command the Dreadhorde is such a strong card in the matchup. There’s no pressure, so your life total will be very high, and there’s often no way to deal with it other than discard. This version only has one copy of The Elderspell (which might be my biggest regret regarding this list), but you should still not despair even if you fall very far behind, as you are always one top deck away from winning.
Esper Hero (on the play)
The worst part of playing against the Hero version is that you don’t know how they are going to sideboard. They could take out all Heroes, or keep all 4, or keep a mix, or even board in something like Thief of Sanity in addition to the Heroes. Because they have this mind game going where you’re the only person that can get it wrong, they are favored if they have access to the same cards you do.
Both of your 3-mana planeswalkers are very good here, and you should prioritize keeping them alive. The great majority of the time, if you resolve a Narset you should just pass the turn without using it, so as to not expose it to Lightning Strike or Arclight Phoenix.
You should also keep in mind that Teferi stops Finale of Promise from working at all, and if you have Teferi and Narset in play you lock out all their card draw spells (since they can’t play it on your turn and on their turn it doesn’t work). Another cool play is to +1 Teferi and cast Command the Dreadhorde at instant speed to steal the Phoenixes they were going to bring back
The sideboarding is very tricky, because the cards they might have demand different answers. Everyone has some number of counterspells (e.g. Spell Pierce, Negate, Disdainful Stroke), but then some people have Legion Warboss, some have Saheeli Rai, some have Ral Zarek, some have Narset, and some have them all.
Legion Warboss isn’t a nightmare, since you naturally want to have Cast Down and Cry of the Carnarium against them, so you’re already sort of covered, but it can definitely steal games if left unchecked. The planeswalkers aren’t huge issues either since you still have Duress, Dovin’s Veto and Thought Erasure, although an unanswered Saheeli can also run away with the game.
The biggest thing is whether they will bring in answers to Lyra Dawnbringer or not. I’ve played against people who kept in their Lava Coils and had several Beacon Bolts, so the card wasn’t as good as it could be. If they have 1 Beacon Bolt, then Lyra is still very good; at 2 it’s only okay, and at 3 I’d probably not even bring it in.
This is one matchup that is significantly improved by having Wraths. Sometimes you lose to their really fast draws, but I’ve found that I win the majority of medium and long games, even if their deck looks resilient.
Sideboarding is also tricky because The Elderspell could be great or bad depending on their build. Some people play two different Domris, Nissa, and Sarkhan; some play just Domri. If you see just Domri, I wouldn’t have The Elderspell in my deck postboard.
At the tournament, we had decklists and I knew that Huey and Cuneo’s deck had 3 Vivien Reid, several Domri’s Ambush and Collision // Colossus, so we thought about not even sideboarding in Lyra against them.
I think Mono Red is a good matchup. You have a lot of incidental life gain, so you just have to make sure you don’t die to Experimental Frenzy, which is why cards like Despark come in even if they don’t have a lot of targets. Also remember that you can use Teferi, Time Raveler to bounce your own Oath of Kaya (or sometimes your Basilica Bell-Haunt), so it’s actually a threatening card in the matchup.
In my mind, I split Nissa decks into 3 categories: Simic Mass Manipulation, Bant creatures, and Sultai Dreadhorde.
UG(w) Mass Manipulation
This is the more “spell-based” version of UG, so that’s the axis you fight them on. In this matchup, you have to make sure you don’t just get hosed by Mass Manipulation. For example, don’t get Teferi up to 8 loyalty if they can Mass Manipulate it.
If they have Tamiyo, then you don’t want Bell-Haunt and you want all your Elderspells plus potentially a Despark. If they have something like The Immortal Sun, you can play Despark instead of The Elderspell, though you’re already bringing in a lot of cards that deal with it before it even hits the battlefield. If they are the white build and have Teferi, then I don’t like Ixalan’s Binding. Just bring in another copy of Cast Down instead.
If they are more planeswalker-based (with 4 Teferis), then you can board in a copy of The Elderspell.
These are your worst matchups because they attack you from too many angles. They have creatures that pressure you and your planeswalkers, their own very powerful planeswalkers, and a super powerful late-game spell you can’t interact with very well. Your best way to win is just to cast Command the Dreadhorde before they do. True, you have only 2 of them and no Tamiyo, but they also can’t stop you from resolving it if you cast it.
Lyra Dawnbringer isn’t great here, but she beats most of the fair draws, which is what you have to worry about when you have so many ways postboard to get rid of their planeswalkers and stop Command the Dreadhorde. They have some Despark targets (Nissa, Tamiyo, Vraska), but you’re already bringing in a lot of cards to deal with these. If you board only so you can deal with planeswalkers, then you risk losing to Jadelight Rangers, so I prefer just taking Despark out. It’s possible you should have another Cast Down in there, too.
See you soon,