Standard is in a constant state of flux. The dynamism of the format, and its weekly winners and losers, provides unique and enjoyable challenges for anyone who is looking to stay a step ahead of the competition, rewarding careful and considered deckbuilding just as much as tight competitive play. In “open” formats like this, it’s often a good idea to gravitate towards the kind of list that is often referred to as a “51% deck”. The typical example being, of course, Jund in Modern: a deck that has few clear weaknesses, high card quality, and even-ish matchups against the format as a whole.
In Standard, the best example of this kind of deck is Esper Midrange. You’ve probably seen this deck out and about, and right now it’s enjoying a surge in popularity–it’s no longer a secret that this deck can get it done. One powerful wizard who has, in fact, been getting it done with Esper Midrange is none other than Aaron Burns Lees, who has represented England at the World Magic Cup and recently tied up a spot at the upcoming Mythic Championship with his take on the archetype.
Aaron Burns Lees
4 Watery Grave 4 Hallowed Fountain 4 Godless Shrine 4 Glacial Fortress 4 Drowned Catacomb 4 Isolated Chapel 1 Swamp (339) 4 Hero of Precinct One 4 Thief of Sanity 4 Deputy of Detention 3 Basilica Bell Haunt 3 Teferi, Time Raveler 3 Sorin, Vengeful Bloodlord 3 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria 2 Oath of Kaya 4 Thought Erasure 2 Duress 3 Tyrant's Scorn Sideboard 2 Lyra Dawnbringer 1 Command the Dreadhorde 2 Cry of the Carnarium 2 The Elderspell 2 Despark 2 Hostage Taker 1 Duress 3 Narset, Parter of Veils
What Esper Midrange is All About
It’s fair to characterize Esper Midrange as the Jund of Standard. It’s full of powerful standalone cards, doesn’t rely on flashy synergies, and with the right approach can beat just about any other deck in Standard. That’s what is truly special about this deck–even if it doesn’t utterly crush other decks into the dirt, it has game against essentially all of the format–a great place to be when things are changing week-to-week.
If you’re familiar with black-green-based Modern strategies, Esper Midrange’s approach to winning games will be something you’re used to. Use early discard spells to deal with opposing threats, while using high-impact individual threats of your own to take over a game.
Thought Erasure is an excellent card, but this deck’s emphasis on discard spells goes some way in explaining the main deck Duress that backs it up. In addition to the discard package, efficient removal helps to protect impactful planeswalkers, while each individual creature in the list can take over a game on its own.
This is an uncomplicated, no-frills approach to winning, particularly in game one. With the high-power level and drastic variety of Standard’s best decks, Aaron said he wants a plan that “is generically good vs. ‘Magic cards.’” Pressuring opponents with singular threats, reanimating them with Sorin, and relying on pure card quality is an excellent way to fight an open field.
Last week, I discussed how Deputy of Detention is an over-valued card when fighting off planeswalkers due to how easy it is to remove. Aaron mitigates the card’s fragility by including Sorin alongside the Deputy as a package deal. Reanimating a Deputy of Detention can be an incredibly swingy play–not only does the Deputy remove their best threat, it also protects the Sorin against a hand that is now lighter on removal.
With its potential weakness offset by Sorin, Deputy can do its best work. Bant Midrange has a very hard time killing it, meaning it serves as an Oblivion Ring with legs. Dreadhorde decks have only a small smattering of removal, so if you can snag a Massacre Girl or Vraska with your Deputy, they’ll have a hard time killing it this time around.
However, I was most surprised to learn just how good Deputy of Detention can be against Mono-Red. Even just running it out to clean up a Ghitu Lavarunner or Fanatical Firebrand makes it very hard for your opponent to reliably Light Up the Stage, and it really shines against Experimental Frenzy and Chandra, where they simply must answer it while fighting through a Sorin that is gaining you life!
Having a catchall answer to everything your opponent can hope to throw at you–from Rekindling Phoenix to The Immortal Sun–opens up the dimensions on which this deck can fight, and Deputy of Detention is at its very best here in Esper Midrange.
Duress and Thought Erasure are both are useful discard spells (even if Duress is quite narrow, it has plenty of targets in this planeswalker-heavy metagame), but why is Thief of Sanity included alongside them?
Much like Deputy plus Sorin, Thief plus a discard spell is something of a package deal in this deck. One common criticism of Thief of Sanity–much like Deputy of Detention–is its fragility. Opponents can answer it with a one-mana Shock, or bounce it with little Teferi, and both these scenarios are miserable. However, everyone knows the devastating impact that Thief of Sanity has when it goes unanswered. As a result, playing six discard spells that you can aggressively deploy to clear the way for your Thief means that it’s that much more likely to survive! Curving Duress or Thought Erasure into Thief of Sanity will leave many slower decks playing from behind from the outset, burying your opponent in card advantage.
One final thing to remember about Thief of Sanity is that you can also simply overload opposing removal, rather than fend it off. The abundance of creatures in Aaron’s list means that many opponents will be hard-pressed to manage the board effectively–and you can always reanimate a Thief with Sorin once they’ve deployed their removal!
Current Esper Midrange lists are undecided on their anti-Red four-drop of choice. Basilica Bell-Haunt and Elite Guardmage both gain life and more or less guarantee a two-for-one, but which is superior?
As you might have guessed from the list, it’s Basilica Bell-Haunt. What you might not have guessed, however, is that it’s not particularly close.
Why Basilica Bell-Haunt is better here:
- Its four toughness makes it very difficult for Mono-Red to remove, providing what essentially amounts to a four-for-one: two cards to kill it, one card discarded, and the lifegain being roughly equivalent to a card in and of itself.
- Elite Guardmage, on the other hand, is killed very easily by Mono-Red with their abundance of three-damage burn and doesn’t block anywhere near as effectively.
- Bell-Haunt also pressures planeswalkers more effectively thanks to its higher power. Planeswalker decks don’t play a lot of blockers, so Guardmage’s evasion is much less relevant. As Gucci Boi pointed out, the Bell-Haunt is particularly good at attacking through Nissa’s 3/3 lands.
- The discard effect is much more valuable against opponents who have already had their hand shredded by six discard spells. Aaron expanded on this for me. “Drawing a card is better for progressing your own game plan, whereas discarding the opponents’ is better for limiting theirs,” he said. “As our cards are generally cheaper than the opponents’ and more individually powerful for their mana cost, we are firmly on board for the plan of limiting our opponents’ plays.”
- Esper Midrange doesn’t really need to draw extra cards to hit land drops and the like (if anything, the deck hopes to avoid flooding out). As a result, the Guardmage’s ability really isn’t something we’re super interested in.
Lyra gets the nod over Enter the God-Eternals in this list, for two simple reasons. Firstly, Sorin can’t reanimate Enter the God-Eternals, and secondly, Lyra doesn’t die to Lava Coil. Enter the God-Eternals is cool and flashy, but you can’t beat a Baneslayer.
Cry of the Carnarium is an important tool against aggressive decks, particularly Mono-White, and against Arclight Phoenix. It looks weird in a deck with Hero of Precinct One, but if you happen to draw both, there’s a high-level line you can take to ensure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot: simply don’t play Cry of the Carnarium. This is the sort of thing the pros don’t want you to know!
Command the Dreadhorde is an over-the-top finisher for slower matchups, as a high-impact one-of that you can dig for with Narset. Alternatively, you could play Ugin, Liliana, or another heavy hitter.
Tips and Tricks
With so many of your cards having sweet enter-the-battlefield effects, don’t be afraid to use little Teferi’s -3 to pick one up and redeploy it. Between Oath of Kaya, Basilica Bell-Haunt, resetting Deputy of Detention and post-board Hostage Taker, there’s plenty of options. Look to get maximum value from your cards with unorthodox use of Teferi. Sometimes you might even want to use Hostage Taker on your own stuff, just to rebuy its triggered ability–this can be critical in gaining life while racing! You don’t even need to recast the exiled card, as you can block with your Hostage Taker and the exiled card will be returned for free.
Little Teferi allows you to play your discard spells at instant speed. For the highest impact, play them during your opponent’s draw step when you can have your pick of the litter and really mess up their turns. This also means that Duress and Thought Erasure aren’t horrific topdecks in the late game because you can still get good value thanks to Teferi!
First of all, a quick hello to everyone skipping straight from the decklist to the sideboard guide without reading any of the boring stuff in between. You made a good decision.
Growth Spiral decks
OUT: (on the draw)
On the play
Esper Midrange with Thief of Sanity
Esper Midrange without Thief of Sanity
Generally, you shouldn’t cut Hero of Precinct One, Thief of Sanity, or Duress. You might be tempted to, but more or less every deck has targets for Duress, and the creatures are fundamental to the deck’s overall gameplan. In some matchups you might want to cut down on them (for example, Thief of Sanity against Mono-White), but you should never cut both Thief and Hero at the same time.
Esper Midrange is a rarity in today’s Standard format in that it offers a measure of consistency against an ever-changing format. While no one is claiming it’s the most powerful or explosive deck in the format, while there are decks that are faster, bigger, splashier, and more entertaining, there aren’t many decks with the pure staying power and reliability of Esper Midrange.
If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t want to chop and change decks every week and wants to settle into a little bit more of a routine with deck choice, I highly recommend this list to attack the Standard format!