The idea started with a little spark provided by Sam Black. If you’re looking for inspiration for a brew, Sam’s content is a fantastic place to start. He played an Esper Planeswalkers list at the SCG Regionals early in March, and by his account it wasn’t super successful. He did mention he thought Kaya, Orzhov Usurper was a strong card though, and fit her into a Lantern Control build he Top 8’d Grand Prix Tampa with.
While I was keeping up with Sam’s Kaya progress, I was busy testing Amulet Titan. I have a long history of playing control in Modern, and have mostly registered U/W and Jeskai in events whenever possible. But I made a conscious decision to put Cryptic Command down around the new year, and I’ve recently found myself casting Amulet of Vigor and Primeval Titan. As I was testing two weeks before SCG Cleveland, U/R Phoenix had completely taken over the format and I was not winning enough with Simic Growth Chamber to feel confident registering them. So in a time of personal identity (or in this case deck) crisis I turned to what I knew best: control.
I started testing Jeskai. It unfortunately wasn’t cutting it for me at all, so I rapidly moved onto the next idea. I made the finals of a local IQ a few months back with a U/W deck utilizing main deck Rest in Peace, and that seemed like it could have potential. My first few Leagues with the deck showed promise, but Rest in Peace in your main deck can be awkward. There were enough matchups where drawing it was a liability that I didn’t want too many copies, but in the matchups it was good, it was the only card you wanted to draw. I couldn’t seem to find the right number to play.
That was when I came across the below list from MTGO user Kuroro.
kuroro, 5-0 in a Modern Competitive League
4 Celestial Colonnade 4 Field of Ruin 4 Flooded Strand 3 Glacial Fortress 2 Hallowed Fountain 6 Island 1 Plains 1 Snapcaster Mage 1 Vendilion Clique 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor 2uu 239.98 2 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 3 Condemn 2 Path to Exile 4 Serum Visions 1 Spell Snare 2 Mana Leak 2 Negate 3 Thirst for Knowledge 2 Timely Reinforcements 3 Cryptic Command 1 Settle the Wreckage 2 Supreme Verdict 4 Relic of Progenitus 1 Talisman of Progress 1 Detention Sphere Sideboard 1 Condemn 2 Dispel 1 Path to Exile 1 Spell Pierce 1 Surgical Extraction 1 Negate 3 Rest in Peace 1 Timely Reinforcements 1 Vendilion Clique 1 Supreme Verdict 1 Cataclysmic Gearhulk 1 Lyra Dawnbringer
They seemed to share similar ideas about main deck graveyard hate being pretty good, but had moved toward Relic of Progenitus instead of R.I.P., allowing them to cycle the card in matchups where attacking the graveyard doesn’t matter. I tested this deck quite a bit and I have to say I mostly liked what it was doing. It felt very close, but I had some hangups.
My biggest issue was the list’s reliance on Condemn as cheap removal. It was embarrassing against Death’s Shadow and Humans despite those being matchups where you want that type of card. Another issue for me was the lack of a certain blue 2/1. Snapcaster Mage is likely one of the top 3 creatures ever printed and possibly the best one in Modern. Only being able to play 1 or 2 of them thanks to my own Relics and U/W’s general shortage of cheap main deck instants was completely unacceptable to me. There were a few other matchup specific issues as well, and overall I liked the deck, but there was room for improvement.
I’m sure by this point you’re all screaming, “Get to the part about Esper!” Well, thank you for your patience. We have arrived. Unhappy with U/W Relic of Progenitus, I started digging through every control deck list I could find that had put up a recent result. In desperate need of inspiration, I came across this list from Mythic Invitational Competitor and MTGGoldfish podcast co-host David Nguyen:
David Nguyen, 27th place at Grand Prix Los Angeles
3 Celestial Colonnade 1 Drowned Catacomb 2 Field of Ruin 4 Flooded Strand 2 Glacial Fortress 1 Godless Shrine 2 Hallowed Fountain 4 Polluted Delta 2 Watery Grave 3 Island 1 Plains 1 Swamp 3 Snapcaster Mage 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor 2 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 4 Fatal Push 4 Path to Exile 1 Spell Snare 2 Logic Knot 1 Negate 1 Absorb 3 Esper Charm 4 Cryptic Command 2 Settle the Wreckage 2 Supreme Verdict 1 Engineered Explosives 2 Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin Sideboard 2 Ceremonious Rejection 2 Stony Silence 2 Timely Reinforcements 3 Unmoored Ego 4 Leyline of the Void 1 Baneslayer Angel 1 Lyra Dawnbringer
As soon as I saw what he was doing with his list, my mind raced back to Sam Black’s testing of Kaya. I had historically considered Esper inferior to Jeskai because it didn’t have a good main deck way to gain life (Lightning Helix), something Modern’s fetch/shockland mana bases really made requisite for control decks. U/W also generally lacked a good effect like this but compensated for it with a mostly pain-free mana base.
Interestingly, Kaya provides the life gain Esper craves, and is one-sided graveyard hate that lets me play more Snapcasters. I immediately slotted her in and set to improve the list. Crim’s build did not have the Relics from the previous U/W list, but Relic wasn’t actually good at stopping explosive U/R Phoenix turn 2s when you were on the draw anyway. Nihil Spellbomb was, and the fact I could now pay for its sacrifice and draw trigger made it an instant upgrade. Fatal Push was another lure to playing Swamps and quickly proved itself leaps and bounds better than Condemn.
I tuned the list to a point I was happy with, but still needed to actually commit to playing an unproven brew at a big event. I asked my friend Stanley to get U/R Phoenix together and we sat down to run a bunch of games. I played about 15 games with Amulet, 15 games with U/W, and 15 with Esper. My Amulet list was missing the Hive Mind technology other noted Amulet pilots pulled out for the weekend and therefore did not make the cut. U/W Control also struggled. While U/W could mostly handle the creature threats of Phoenix, Pyromancer Ascension was giving me fits. The majority of my losses came from the Ascension in that matchup, although we were also finding that when Phoenix Surgically extracted U/W’s Path to Exile or Terminus, the deck could no longer beat Phoenix.
So how did Esper perform against Phoenix? It was a massacre. A big draw to Esper I did not mention above was Esper Charm. U/W pilots are happy to play Hieroglyphic Illumination just to get access to a 4-mana instant speed Divination. I was thrilled to get that effect for 3 mana in Esper. It was a control player’s dream come true! Testing quickly showed I should use the draw mode sparingly against Phoenix and that the trick to this matchup was to use it to destroy the Pyromancer Ascension. That was the last straw that broke the camel’s back for me and I was winning almost every game at that point. In fact, about halfway through the set my friend even remarked that testing was worthless and unrealistic as every card in my list felt like a hate card for him. The deck was still performing well in other matchups and with Phoenix being close to a quarter of the Day 2 field in recent events, I was ecstatic my list felt so spiteful. That was all I needed to feel comfortable registering the deck, and a few days later I found myself playing for a trophy in the finals of SCG Cleveland.
Zach Allen, 2nd place at SCG Open Cleveland
1 Creeping Tar Pit 3 Field of Ruin 4 Flooded Strand 2 Glacial Fortress 1 Godless Shrine 2 Hallowed Fountain 4 Polluted Delta 2 Watery Grave 3 Island 1 Plains 1 Swamp 4 Snapcaster Mage 1 Kaya, Orzhov Usurper 2 Jace, the Mind Sculptor 3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 3 Fatal Push 4 Path to Exile 1 Cast Down 2 Logic Knot 2 Negate 3 Esper Charm 3 Cryptic Command 2 Supreme Verdict 3 Nihil Spellbomb 3 Opt Sideboard 1 Dispel 2 Surgical Extraction 2 Thoughtseize 2 Celestial Purge 2 Collective Brutality 1 Detention Sphere 2 Unmoored Ego 2 Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet 1 Supreme Verdict
All right, I’ve covered how I got here. Now let me give you the run down on a few matchups and how I sideboarded in them.
U/R Phoenix on the Draw
U/R Phoenix on the Play
The basic idea here is just survive. Your goal is to kill every threat the U/R Phoenix player presents and to use your card draw to find more answers. Their deck is actually pretty threat light, so it’s not hard to completely run them out if you can Surgical Arclight Phoenix or get off a well-timed Spellbomb. A nice trick I found was to pop your Spellbomb with a Phoenix in play, then cast a Fatal Push on an Arclight Phoenix with the exile trigger on the stack.
Again you’re looking to trade off resources early and to stick your big hitters to turn the game around. Usually Verdict into Teferi wins the game outright, and don’t be afraid to aggressively attack this deck’s Aether Vials and mana base with your Field of Ruins and Kaya minuses.
This matchup is pretty hard. If they don’t have Hive Minds it’s very easy to run them out of threats. If they do have Hive Mind, try to get Summoner’s Pact extracted from their deck ASAP, then go about trying to kill all their threats. Save your Field of Ruins for Slayers’ Stronghold if you can.
This matchup is also very difficult. You’re probably only about 35% percent to win, but your wins come from keeping them off all 3 Tron lands. Cryptic bouncing lands and aggressively making the opponent discard with Esper Charm is the best we got here. Try to get to the Teferi ultimate ASAP!
The plan against Dredge is to put all of their things into exile. All of them. You’ll notice basically everything in your deck post-board exiles and as long as you can get their Conflagrates early they should have a lot of trouble in the matchup.
I’ve heard this matchup described as completely unwinnable for Shadow from some very good Shadow players. Just don’t let them stick a threat and it’s pretty easy to win with Snapcaster beats!
Value is king in this matchup. Do not let them have Dark Confidants or Tireless Trackers. It’s much easier to beat a Liliana that sticks around than it is to beat a Tracker. They’ll likely have Assassin’s Trophy for your first couple of planeswalkers. That’s okay, just keep drawing cards and denying their card draw creatures, and you’ll get there.
Hardened Scales Affinity
Well, that’s all I have on Esper for now. Thank you for taking the time to read my article. If you have questions on how to sideboard any other matchups I’m happy to discuss them on Twitter! I can be reached @A22en. Lastly, I’d like to give a shout out to Pam, RIW’s owner. I would not be where I am in MTG today without her and I know many other Michigan based Magic players that would say the same!