This Standard format is hostile toward creatures. More than half of most tournament fields are 2-, 3-, and 4-color midrange decks built from the most efficient removal spells, and some card drawing to make sure they never run out. The remainder of the field consists of decks like Atarka Red, Rally the Ancestors, and Eldrazi Green, which largely ignore what you’re doing anyway. If that weren’t enough, Reflector Mage is a huge headache for anyone who was ever hoping to put a creature into play that costs more than 1 or 2 mana.
My Philosophy: Why Bother?
Today I’m going to introduce (or reintroduce, for those of you who’ve followed my column for a long time) Esper Control. It’s not Esper Dragons, it’s not Esper Tokens, it’s not Esper Midrange. It’s a creatureless control deck designed to strand the opponent with a hand full of Crackling Dooms, Reflector Mages, and Dromoka’s Commands that can’t do much against you.
REIDERRABBIT, 21st place in the Standard MOCS
The only creature in the main deck is Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy // Jace, Telepath Unbound. I’ll admit that he is a bit of a lightning rod since he’s the only target the opponent can spend removal on, but he’s simply too good not to play. He only costs 2 mana, so if the opponent wants to answer him, it means that they are not deploying a threat of their own, which is always good news for a slow control deck. Later in the game, even an opponent with a handful of removal will eventually tap out, at which time you can use Ojutai’s Command to return Jace at the end of the turn, untap, and transform him—sort of a “Snapcaster Mage plus” type of effect.
Esper Control passes with its mana untapped more often than any other deck in Standard, which makes it very dangerous and very annoying to play against. Once you get the board somewhat stable, you can start saying “go” and put your opponent in a position where they don’t want to cast a creature for fear of Ojutai’s Command, don’t want to cast a spell for fear of Negate or Clash of Wills, and don’t want to do anything for fear that you’ll pull further ahead with a Dig Through Time. Often you’ll have all three bases covered and you’ll be happy with whichever one they choose!
Oath of the Gatewatch brought favorable changes for Esper Control. Grasp of Darkness is a big upgrade over Ultimate Price since it can kill Mantis Rider, Anafenza, the Foremost, devoid creatures, and creature lands. Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is great for locking up the game against Rally the Ancestors, and against red decks. Linvala, the Preserver is a powerhouse finisher that comes in out of the sideboard in a lot of matchups.
More importantly, though, many of the excellent cards from Oath of the Gatewatch that other decks adopted match up poorly against Esper Control. Reflector Mage is an example for obvious reasons. Goblin Dark-Dwellers—which is extremely vulnerable to Ojutai’s Command—has taken the slot in midrange decks that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ob Nixilis, Reignited used to fill.
Deck Difficulty: Hard
Esper Control is a very reactive deck. Most decks are capable of a nut draw that can simply run over the opposition—but not Esper. Every win comes hard-fought and on thin margins. You need to line up your answers properly with their threats, and not leave yourself vulnerable to catastrophe.
The biggest problem, however, is making these decisions in the face of the round clock. You’ll notice that my suggested main deck has very few win conditions. In practice, the games can quickly get to a point where the opponent has no threats and you have a hand full of card draw, permission, and removal. From a point like that, the opponent can no longer win, yet it can still take a very long time to officially beat them.
Some typical routes to victory include: ticking Narset Transcendent up to 9 loyalty, making an emblem, and then winning with an emblem from Jace, Telepath Unbound, or killing all of the opponent’s creatures and attacking nine times with Shambling Vent. Neither is exactly quick.
Thankfully, there are a lot more win conditions in the sideboard to help you win games 2 and 3 in a timely fashion. But if game 1 takes 25 or 30 minutes, it can certainly be a challenge to finish a 3-game match in time.
There are only two popular decks that you should be scared to face with Esper Control.
The first is Eldrazi Green, which is a truly horrible matchup. You can’t beat their best draws. You should mulligan aggressively to Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy and try to make an emblem as quickly as possible. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to make them discard a key card, or otherwise answer their first threat or two. At that point, you cross your fingers and hope to fade the top of their library for a crucial couple of turns.
Note that Infinite Obliteration is a very bad card that should be avoided. I think it was always a myth that it was an effective sideboard card against Rally the Ancestors. There was one snapshot in time where it was useful against Eldrazi Green when all they had was 4 copies of Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Today they diversify with World Breaker, Kozilek, the Great Distortion, Thought-Knot Seer, and any of a dozen different threats.
A sideboard card that is effective is Transgress the Mind. You can strip a threat before they trigger “casts” abilities like destroying your lands or using Sanctum of Ugin to find more gas. The fact that it exiles shuts off World Breaker recursion and Haven of the Spirit Dragon. Finally, you can often get double-duty by flashing it back with Jace, Telepath Unbound. If you want to have the best chance of beating Ramp, try to make room in the sideboard for 3 Transgress the Mind.
The second bad matchup is Bant Collected Company, which isn’t unwinnable but is solidly unfavorable. The good news is that it’s a very complex and challenging matchup, so if you have a lot more experience than your opponent (which you will, since Esper Control is a relatively unpopular strategy), then you have a fighting chance.
Bant Collected Company has a lot of staying power between Collected Company, Deathmist Raptor, and Lumbering Falls. With instant-speed threats, they’re not forced to play into your counterspells like many other decks are. Finally, a well-placed Dispel or Disdainful Stroke from their sideboard can punch an annoying hole into many of your draws.
The main reason to choose Esper Control is to beat up on midrange decks, which are quite popular and come in many varieties. As a general rule, the slower and more reactive the deck, the better the matchup for Esper. For example, a classic Jeskai deck with Mantis Rider is a slightly favorable matchup, but a Jeskai Black control deck without Mantis Rider is very favorable. Likewise, a classic Abzan Aggro deck with 4 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a 50/50 matchup, but a 4-color Abzan control deck with Goblin Dark-Dwellers is very favorable.
These decks have lots of (mostly) dead removal spells in game 1, and after sideboard, you can put them to the test by bringing in a small number of must-answer threats. Generally speaking, your long game is better, and you’ll be able to grind them out as things drag on indefinitely.
Rally the Ancestors—the clear best deck in Standard—is also a great matchup for Esper Control. With main-deck Hallowed Moonlight, you have a built-in advantage in fighting over their Collected Companies and Rally the Ancestors. In the absence of those cards, their anemic beatdown game plan typically can’t beat your Languishes, Shambling Vents, and Ojutai’s Commands.
Finally, I feel good about the Atarka Red matchup for Esper Control. With just 4 Arashin Clerics, the matchup hovered around 50/50, but with the addition of Flaying Tendrils, you have too many excellent tools for them to overcome after sideboard. Naturally, it’s foolish to ever count your chickens against a deck like Atarka Red, but I’m generally happy when my opponent leads with a Zurgo Bellstriker.
Jace remains one of the best cards in Standard and provides a lot of easy wins despite the number of removal spells out there. He’s your best tool against the unfair decks like Eldrazi Green and Rally the Ancestors. The presence of Jace is also important for letting Ojutai’s Command reach its full potential.
Ojutai’s Command is a way to build life gain and card advantage into your control deck without resorting to any clunky, awkward options. It also lets you prey on players who are leaning too heavily on their Siege Rhinos and Goblin Dark-Dwellers to do their heavy lifting.
This is what I said the last time I discussed Dig Through Time: “Dig Through Time has been a staple of control decks for as long as it has been legal. It’s banned or restricted in all other tournament formats and for good reason. It’s the best card in the deck, and the best card in Standard. Always play 4 in your control decks, and never sideboard one out.” Nothing about this has changed.
I’ve searched high and low for effective win conditions to help shore up Esper Control’s game 1s. Any creature you choose will just eat one of the Crackling Dooms your opponent has been saving all game. Ob Nixilis, Reignited is a liability since your life total is frequently in jeopardy in game 1. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon has lost a bit of his punch in the current metagame, and because new mana requirements have made playing with Mage-Ring Network an impossibility.
Narset Transcendent is exactly the right planeswalker for the job. She doesn’t officially win the game, but the card advantage she provides can pull you so far ahead that winning the game becomes academic. Once you’re ready to use her ultimate, you can feel safe winning with even the most fragile of victory conditions.
Narset’s greatest strength is her tremendously high starting loyalty, meaning that you can often just toss her onto the battlefield at your convenience, and more or less let her fend for herself.
Duress rarely misses in Standard. Some players are working hard to set up a Collected Company or Rally the Ancestors, and others keep stocked hands the entire game via Painful Truths and Treasure Cruise.
Duress is the most efficient tool for winning counterspell battles and gives you great flexibility in planning how to manage your mana and deploy your spells.
It’s important to have some proactive cards to cast in the early turns in order to smooth your draws and fill your graveyard for delve spells. Anticipate is better for this job, but Hallowed Moonlight can generate extra value and offers the occasional blowout. It’s a crucial part of your plan against Rally the Ancestors.
At times, I’ve played either all Anticipates or all Hallowed Moonlights, but I believe that a split is best, since you’d much prefer to draw one of each than two of either one. For starters, some of your opening hands will be missing either white mana or blue mana. It’s a shame to be caught with 2 Hallowed Moonlights and a bunch of Sunken Hollows. Second, if you draw one of each, you might decide to cast the Anticipate early and choose the right moment for Hallowed Moonlight. Third, there are some matchups where you’d prefer to sideboard out Hallowed Moonlight but love to keep in a copy or two of Anticipate.
For fun, here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of the great things Hallowed Moonlight can stop:
- Collected Company
- Rally the Ancestors (while permanently exiling the player’s entire graveyard)
- Dragon Fodder
- Hordeling Outburst
- Secure the Wastes
- Plus abilities from Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Chandra, Flamecaller
- Trigger from Hangarback Walker dying
- Recursion of Deathmist Raptor, Bloodsoaked Champion, or Flamewake Phoenix
Clash of Wills is generally a pretty weak card. Its greatest weakness is that it’s unexciting after sideboard in control mirrors where it will lose out to more efficient counterspells, and the ability to see it with a Duress makes it easy to play around.
Having only 2, however, makes it harder for your opponent to play around in the dark. It also makes it easier to sideboard them out when you’re on the draw, or playing against a fast deck. A small number of Clash of Wills is a necessary evil in order to have enough early plays, and enough answers to a wide variety of possible threats.
Where Clash of Wills is weak, Negate is strong. Like Duress, Negate has great targets against every deck in Standard. Even against beatdown decks, where Negate is traditionally a liability, it’s good in this Standard. It’s rock-solid against Atarka Red, and is a great foil to the dreaded Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. Negate is the perfect intersection of a mana-efficient answer and a way to lock up the late game once you take control.
While some midrange decks only like to play out one or two threats at a time, there are still plenty of games that will come down to “sweep the board and win, or don’t and lose.” Board sweepers are a surprisingly important part of your game plan against Rally the Ancestors, since mopping up the stragglers and protecting your life total allows you to play more safely around their combo.
The split between Languish and Planar Outburst follows similar logic to the split between Hallowed Moonlight and Anticipate. The singleton Planar Outburst also rounds out a healthy suite of answers to Siege Rhino.
There’s a lot more to be said about Esper Control, and a lot more work to be done in perfecting the deck list. If you’re looking for a challenging and rewarding new deck, or simply a way to beat up on a particular handful of Standard decks, then Esper might be for you. If you’re interested in the archetype, keep an eye on my column, and I’ll be sure to post updates soon.