Last weekend, I played Esper at Grand Prix Orlando. I started the tournament well, but ended up not cashing. Regardless, I thought the deck was well positioned, corroborated by the fact that there were three copies in the Top 8 of Grand Prix Brussels.
The first question you need to answer is whether you want to play Esper or UW.
Esper has two big advantages over U/W. The first is Vraska’s Contempt. This card is amazing, especially with Torrential Gearhulk. Cast Out is a good card too, but they are not the same—Cast Out can be dealt with, doesn’t gain life, and can’t be Gearhulked back. Vraska’s Contempt is the main reason to be in black, and it’s why the Esper decks can often play three or four Gearhulks and the U/W decks play zero or one (though personally I love Gearhulk in U/W and would play two main deck).
The second big advantage Esper has is the black sideboard cards. Duress, Doomfall and Glint-Sleeve Siphoner or Arguel’s Blood Fast are better than anything the U/W decks can do in the mirror (I think that, for U/W, the best plan is counterspells + Barals). Those cards are also better against decks like Turbo Fog and Mono-Blue because they let you take a more proactive role. If you have a Siphoner out, then you can just sit behind a wall of counterspells and you will win the game, whereas with U/W you can sit behind the same wall of counterspells and lose anyway.
For its part, U/W has two clear advantages over Esper. The first is the mana. The mana in Esper is serviceable, but it’s not good. A lot of your lands come into play tapped, and you often require B on turns 1-2, UU on turn 3, BB on turn 4, and W on turn 5. If you don’t draw a basic type, then you effectively time walk yourself every turn of the game, and it’s a real issue when that happens. In U/W, the mana is significantly better, and you get to play some good utility lands like Field of Ruin and Arch of Orazca.
The other big advantage U/W has over Esper is that its heavy white mana base lets it play Wraths—Fumigate and Settle the Wreckage—which means that it can win a lot of games in which it falls behind. If Esper falls too far behind, it can never recover, but U/W always can unless the opponent manages to find a bunch of noncreature permanents to threaten you. This means that for Esper, things have to go well at all stages of the game. You cannot topdeck your way out of a bad situation because there is nothing to topdeck. If you stumble on mana early on, or if you miss your window to play spells, you will simply lose.
It is possible to play Settle in Esper, and some people do it both in the main deck and in the sideboard, but I don’t think the mana really supports it. Perhaps there’s a different mana base that can work, though.
In practice, this means that U/W is better against green decks, particularly mono-green, and Esper is better versus the slower decks—the control mirror, Turbo Fog, Outcome, and Grixis. I think the black cards are better versus B/R, but the mana is worse, which makes it almost a wash, with a slight edge toward U/W.
Which one you choose to play depends on what you expect the metagame to be. In Orlando, I thought Turbo Fog was going to be huge, especially among the best players, and U/W had just won the PT, so I expected some of that too. To me, it seemed crazy to play green, given that the most popular deck (B/R) is a bad matchup, and that the “deck of the week” (Turbo Fog) is almost impossible to beat, so I didn’t worry that my green matchup had gotten a lot worse.
I based my list off of Shahar Shenhar’s PT list. The differences in the main deck are that I have a Supreme Will and a Forsake the Worldly whereas Shahar had a The Scarab God and a fourth Essence Scatter.
No one plays Supreme Will in Esper, but I think it’s good. Your game plan is usually “deal with everything they play early on, and then land one of your game-winning threats,” and Supreme Will helps with both parts of this. You aren’t trying to control the super late game against most people, so the fact that Supreme Will is outclassed as a counterspell later isn’t that relevant. I also like that it gives you something else to Gearhulk for value. With four Gearhulks, it happens that sometimes you have to play one and there’s nothing you want to flashback, because they aren’t casting a spell.
I also changed the mana base to include five Swamps and two Islands, instead of the four and three that Shahar played (then I switched an Isolated Chapel for a Glacial Fortress, so the colored mana ratio is still the same). I did this because I wanted to be able to cast Fatal Push turn 1, as well as Duress on turn 1 more often. When you have Siphoners and other people have Search for Azcanta and Arguel’s Blood Fast, it’s good to be able to cast Duress turn 1. You aren’t a favorite to do it with five Swamps anyway, but it’s better than if you have four Swamps.
For comparison, this is the list Jeremy Dezani used to win GP Brussels in the same weekend:
I don’t mind the Cast Down, but I think you should play two Search for Azcanta. Search for Azcanta is the best card in game 1 of control matchups. If one player has a turn-2 Search and the other one doesn’t, it’s almost impossible to win.
I am also not a fan of Dezani’s mana base, because I think that playing less than four of each cycling land is a mistake. You want the colored mana, you want the basic land types (though he has an extra basic, so that’s a wash), and you want the ability to cycle them later on. Esper doesn’t have a card like Sphinx’s Revelation—it can control the games and still lose if it floods out, and it doesn’t have the need for infinite mana in the late game, which makes cycling lands perfect for it.
The sideboard is where things get more interesting.
What I Know:
• I want some number of Doomfalls, mostly for the same reason, but also because if you focus too much on “anti-spell” cards, you might end up losing to creatures from the control decks.
• Jace’s Defeat is better than Negate. I want to be able to counter Sai, Master Thopterist, Baral, Chief of Compliance, Nicol Bolas the Ravager, and Torrential Gearhulk. I think this is more important than trying to counter Vraska’s Contempt or Duress, especially since you’re already bringing in Duress for this type of card.
What I Think:
• I think Detection Tower is horrible. I’ve never played the card, but it’s only good against one deck, and I think Vizier is just a better version (or even Yahenni’s Expertise). I would feel differently if I wanted to bring in extra lands against some decks, so that this would serve double-duty, but I don’t think you even want extra lands in control matchups, so I don’t like it.
• I think Chromium, the Mutable isn’t good enough. I like it against Turbo Fog and U/W, but versus the black decks people will bring in Doomfalls and The Eldest Reborns, so it might not be optimal. I expect Esper to become the most popular control deck, so I’d rather be lower to the ground. But it’s possible that I’m wrong here and Chromium is actually great.
• I think it’s better to forego Yahenni’s Expertise altogether. It’s not great against anyone and strikes me as a hedge against Vine Mare, which I don’t think is worth it. I’d rather just Vizier or counter it, and if I can’t, I’ll block it with Gearhulk. If I can’t do that either, I’ll just die to it, and I’m fine with that.
• I think you need more anti-red cards. I don’t know if Dezani boarded some of those in versus B/R or if he was happy to just re-submit the same 60, but I think you don’t want a few of the main deck cards, so the lack of Essence Extraction and Infernal Reckoning is weird to me. Both cards are great against B/R, and Extraction is the best option versus the aggro versions of red. Infernal Reckoning is so effective versus B/R, serving as a cheap answer to Scrapheap Scrounger, Bomat Courier, and Heart of Kiran, that I’d like to have a second. I’d never go down below two Extractions.
• Overall, I think I was over-sideboarding against control. There were too many cards to board in, and I was boarding out cards that weren’t even bad. So I’d like to remove a Duress for the second Infernal Reckoning.
Here’s a rough sideboard guide (assuming that the third Duress becomes a second Reckoning).
In some other control decks, I don’t like taking out Search versus B/R, since you still need a kill condition. But with three Teferis, four Gearhulks, and a Scarab God, I don’t think you need it. I’d always take them out on the draw, but you can keep them on the play if you want (and then you take out more Disallows, which are also much better on the play than on the draw).
Mono-Red (No Scrounger)
One more card comes out but I’m not sure what. You’ll see that I only board out nine cards. Honestly, I don’t know what the correct thing to do is. At the GP I boarded out an extra Vraska’s Contempt, but it’s also possible that you should just cut a second Teferi since they bring in a lot of Negates and Jace’s Defeats and you don’t really want to tap out against them at later stages in the game.
• Don’t keep hands that will fall too far behind without a basic land. The deck is very bad at catching up, and if you miss your window to counter something on turns 2 or 3, you could just lose the game on the spot. A hand with Glacial Fortress and Isolated Chapel as your two lands is almost never a keep.
• Play your cycling lands early unless you’re super flooded already. You want at least six lands, and taking a turn off at any point other than turn 1 can be very harmful.
• Once you lose board control, it’s hard to take it back. Because of this, you need to use your life as a resource to make sure that your opponent doesn’t resolve too many problematic cards. For example, in a spot where your opponent has a Rekindling Phoenix, and your hand is Disallow + Vraska’s Contempt, you can’t just Contempt the Phoenix, because then you lose if they play a Chandra or even another Phoenix. You need to take the 4 damage, counter something that they play, and, if they play nothing, then you Contempt at the end of turn.
• If you can, disguise your access to white mana early on. Obviously you’ll still play a land that will enter play tapped early, but if your choice is between playing Swamp or Isolated Chapel on turn 4, play the Swamp.
• Remember that you can Disallow abilities. I won a game at the GP because I Disallowed a Bomat Courier that had four cards under it. Another relatively common play pattern is that they have Vine Mare and suspect you have Torrential Gearhulk, so they use Hashep Oasis on it precombat, and you can play Gearhulk and Disallow that trigger so that they can’t attack.
All in all, I think Esper is a good deck. It’s not amazing, but it is well positioned right now. I’m not playing Grand Prix Los Angeles or Providence, but, if I were, there’s a good chance I’d play it again with minimal changes. That said, you can’t really go wrong with B/R, so if you’re on the fence, it’s probably the deck for you.