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What's the time in round? [Esper Control Primer]

Modern Competitive Control Creatureless WUB (Esper)

TheAnnihilator


Ailurophobia (ī-lur'ə-fō'bē-ə, ā-lur'-) - "Morbid fear of cats."

Esper Draw-Go is a control deck. Our plan is to prevent our opponent from executing their plan, and eventually resolve a game-winning spell after a long grind of answers and card advantage. In this case, those spells are Gideon of the Trials and White Sun's Zenith , although we could still just beat down with Colonnades and Snapcaster Mage while countering or killing everything that matters. To do this, our arsenal consists of a few basic things -- lands, card advantage spells, removal, counters, and, finally, the finishers.

Lands

Though it seems weird to discuss lands first, in a control deck, lands are really the most important part of the deck. Suprised? Don't be. In order to keep the ball rolling with Esper, the goal is to hit land drops as consistently as possible. Cards like Celestial Colonnade , Sphinx's Revelation , White Sun's Zenith , and Cryptic Command want a LOT of lands in play, so that's one of our main priorities.

As with most mana-bases in Modern, our deck features fetchlands ( Polluted Delta and Flooded Strand ) and shocklands ( Hallowed Fountain , Watery Grave , and Godless Shrine ). We play 7 fetches, all of which fetch a basic Island for painless casting of Cryptic Command and Logic Knot early, and a split of shocks -- 2 Hallowed Fountain s, and 2 Watery Grave . After that, we have 4 manlands in the form of Celestial Colonnade -- which serve as threats while fixing our mana -- and Field of Ruin to deal with opposing manlands and other annoying lands such as Urza lands, Gavony Township , Boseiju, Who Shelters All , etc. The rest of the lands are filled out by a variety of other non-Island blue sources to have for use under the stranglehold of a Choke ; the most unique of which being Reflecting Pool , which pretty much serves as an always-untapped 3 color mana source. We play no more than 1 since they play poorly with each other and with Field of Ruin .


Removal


As you may expect, removal plays a key role in Esper. Path to Exile is a one mana answer to virtually every creature and prevents graveyard shenanigans, so it's an auto-include. Fatal Push is great for taking out early creatures while also hitting larger creatures in combination with a fetchland or a Field.

Finally, this section is rounded out by a playset of Terminus . When the opponent floods the board with creatures to overload our spot removal, BOOM. Terminus is a cheap and easy way to gain card advantage and deal with a variety of otherwise troublesome threats (ex. Lingering Souls ) and strategies such as Eldrazi, Affinity, Tokens, Goblins/8whack, Mefolk, etc.) Terminus also pulls extra weight against Dredge, BridgeVine, value oriented Collected Company decks, etc., because it doesn't put their threats into the graveyard. Terminus also can't be countered by Spell Queller , making it essential against Spirits, and overall it's very effective against aggressive decks because a lucky Terminus is an easy way to become a huge favorite in a game you would have otherwise lost, especially in matchups that boil down to "Wrath or Bust", such as Elves, Merfolk, Collected Company decks, etc. Thus, we need the highest number we can get, and we enable it with Jace, the Mind Sculptor to put it on top of our library, and Opt to potentially miracle it on our opponent's turn.



Counters


As with most any blue-based control deck, Esper plays a variety of counterspells. These types of cards are important as ways to interact with non-creatures spells while still tagging creatures a large majority of the time. Cards like Blood Moon , Ensnaring Bridge , Through the Breach , and Ad Nauseam all tend to be difficult to interact with. Counterspells, while needing to be cast in the moment that the opponent is playing these cards, are a great way to deal with them when they would otherwise be hard to beat. The most iconic counterspell here is likely Cryptic Command , which is expensive, but provides great utility. It is one of the identifying cards of blue control in Modern. Another card that has come to see recognition is Logic Knot . While not exactly cooperative in multiples, Knot is the closest thing to the real Counterspell that blue gets in Modern. If I could play 4 without weakening the deck, I would. Finally, a few other cards tend to see play, such as Remand for an early piece of interaction, and Negate as an early permanent answer to troublesome non-creatures that works well going late. Another important note: Esper doesn't typically play cards such as Mana Leak because of their ineffectiveness in a long game.


Card Advantage

Card Advantage is the second most important thing for control decks. When you can't play threats, how do you pull ahead? The answer is in cards. Digging deeper with draw spells finds you more interaction or a wincon or specific removal spell when you need it. By using cards like Snapcaster Mage , Opt , Esper Charm and Search for Azcanta  Flip, Esper is easily able to keep up with everything the opponent is doing while incidentally hitting land drops for an eventual planeswalker to help close the door.

Because of these cards, Esper is very resilient to hand disruption, like Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek , because of its redundancy and ability to dig for answers. The ideal game for Esper is to play lands, kill/counter some stuff, and draw a bunch of cards, and Esper does it well.

Finishers

The grand finale! There are a variety of options for such "win conditions", but Celestial Colonnade , Jace, the Mind Sculptor , Teferi, Hero of Dominaria , Gideon of the Trials , and White Sun's Zenith are the most common ones. While Gideon Jura is often just a huge detrimental effect on your opponents combat step, he could also be a huge threat if played. Wincons are meant to destroy your opponent with precision or inevitability, and there are a few options, each with upsides and downsides. In no particular order, here's a list of a few others I could think of:

I have had experience with both Jeskai and Grixis Control, and each has its own issues:


Jeskai Control:

Lightning Bolt just isn't what it used to be. Jeskai's removal has a hard time dealing with the large threats present in the format (Eldrazi, Tarmogoyf , Death's Shadow , Tasigur, the Golden Fang , Primeval Titan , Hollow One , Bloodghast , etc.), so Jeskai often boils down to throwing burn spells to the face while trying to buy time and hoping that's good enough. If you're anything like me, that certainly is NOT good enough. In addition, Jeskai can't recover very well from hand disruption -- especially Liliana of the Veil . In Esper, not only do our removal spells kill most any creature, but we have many enough ways to gain card advantage that discard doesn't really hurt us -- I've won countless games despite facing down a Lili ult.

Yet, still, why not choose Grixis?

Grixis has Terminate and Kolaghan's Command , so killing and grinding aren't issues, but there's a catch. Grixis lacks two things: resilient wincons and ways to deal with resilient threats. Sure, Tasigur, the Golden Fang , Gurmag Angler , and Death's Shadow may beat well, but they are vulnerable and cause the deck to play out more like a midrange deck. Grixis also doesn't pack Path to Exile and Terminus for those Arclight Phoenixes, Bloodghast s, etc. In comparison to Grixis's game-enders, a Jace or Teferi should seem more appealing to any player interested in Esper. In addition, changing red out for white gives us some lifegain options, Esper Charm , and a wide variety of great sideboard options.

Consistency and Power

Esper's suite of removal and draw spells are the best in the format. The ability to say no to virtually any permanent in Modern is spectacular, and the draw spells tie everything together.

The Sideboard

White is the best color to sideboard with in Modern. With a combination of hate cards ( Stony Silence ) and powerful/efficient more general options, Esper can be a meta menace if used correctly.

Esper Charm -- ie the Mind Rot Mode and maindeck Demystify

You may have noticed that Esper Charm is the only black card that Esper plays a playset of. That's because it's incredibly flexible. Having the ability to attack the opponent's hand is a very unique angle that most control decks aren't able to field, because cards like Thoughtseize become dead as soon as the opponent goes into topdeck mode. Esper Charm, however, always has some use. One of those uses is pressuring your control opponent to either counter Esper Charm or be forced to discard. Lining up several Charms one your opponent's end step, only to untap and slam a Jace or Teferi is a game winning move. Another way Esper Charm shows it's strength is by answering Blood Moon and Bitterblossom type enchantments that other control decks would have a difficult time answering.

Bad Matchups -- Matchups with Inevitability

Esper is very poor against decks such as Burn, because these types of decks have ways to circumvent our plan of "outresourcing" them. For example, TitanShift can easily keep you on your toes with countermagic (I'm looking at you, Scapeshift and Primeval Titan ), but the reality is this -- all your opponent really has to do is get a Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle or 2 in play and start burning us out with uncounterable Lightning Bolt s. Burn, on the other hand, is simply all gas -- unless they brick on land, every card in their deck is designed to get in those last few points of damage. Even when you have them topdecking, you still must answer everything they draw all while trying to close out the game. It's frustrating to lose to topdecked Lightning Bolt s and Boros Charm s because you topdecked Path to Exile s and Celestial Purge s

$$$

This weakness comes as no surprise. The Jace, the Mind Sculptor s, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria s, Snapcaster Mage s, Cryptic Command s, and even the lands for this deck are all pretty expensive. Very few of the cards are cheap commons and uncommons, so the deck can cost a good chunk of change without any good replacements for the expensive cards. This deck isn't for budget players.

Difficulty

Draw-Go Control in general is a very unique style to play. Esper, in particular, comes down to intuitive gameplay decisions on when to and not to play threats, how to use your resources optimally to reach a certain goal that may be different depending on the matchup. In fact, it's almost an art form. Furthermore, Esper includes a variety of multi-function cards. This means that the correct play isn't always obvious, and sometimes even a single misplay can cost us the game.

A few of the card choices are flexible, but some are set in stone. The following is the bare minimum that you should be playing in Esper Draw-Go.

Land

  • 4x Shock Lands (usually 2x Watery Grave , 2x Hallowed Fountain ) -- The blue ones are most important, as some players choose to eschew the Godless Shrine .
  • 6x Fetch Lands -- 4x Flooded Strand and at least 2x Polluted Delta are ideal, and come into good use if you play against Blood Moon decks.
  • 3x Island -- Blue is the main color in the deck, so you want to be able to cast your blue cards. They're a very common to search up with fetches and Field of Ruin, so I suggest 3 as the minimum.
  • 2x Plains -- White is the second most important color, and you want to get a plains early against Blood Moon decks for Celestial Purge , Disenchant , and Supreme Verdict .
  • 1x Swamp -- Some view this as optional, but I find that having the ability to get a Swamp with Field of Ruin to be important often enough to include one.
  • 3x Celestial Colonnade -- This land is crucial to any UW Control list, and Esper is no exception. It taps for our main colors, and isn't affected by Choke . It attacks. It's good. I often play 4, but 3 is the definite minimum.
  • 2x Field of Ruin -- Though this may seem like just an optional utility land, it's presence really changes a lot about the deck. It destroys manlands without decreasing your hand size or land count, it puts a card in your graveyard for Logic Knot, it triggers Revolt on Fatal Push, it forces your opponent to shuffle their deck, and it allows for a MUCH more reasonable Tron and Valakut matchup. I'm putting 2 as the absolute minimum, but I strongly recommend you play no fewer than 3 Fields.

Card Advantage

  • 2x Search for Azcanta  Flip -- This is the newest part of Esper's draw engine, and filters your draws for free until it flips, helping you dig for a Terminus to miracle. Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin is a great way to make use of excess mana. Simply pass your turn without doing anything, and answer opponents' threats during their turn. Activate Azcanta at their end step if they don't do anything. It's pure card advantage, and perfectly fits Esper's Strategy.
  • 4x Esper Charm -- The secret all star of Esper. While it's usually a card advantage play (both Divination mode and Mind Rot mode come up a lot), it can also kill Totem Armor enchanments, Blood Moon / Choke , and even Eidolon of the Great Revel when you must. Be careful when Mind Rot ting opponents, because a deck like BGx will have a lot of dead removal to pitch, especially game one.
  • 2x Snapcaster Mage -- Lets us buyback all of our spells, and has neat interactions with Cryptic Command . It also attacks for 2 to make a small, but relevant clock. However, it plays poorly with Logic Knot and is vulnerable to opponents' sideboard cards, so it certainly is not a playset card.

Counters

  • 3x Cryptic Command -- One of the best control cards ever printed, Cryptic does virtually everything. Three is typical.
  • 2x Logic Knot -- Our graveyard naturally fills up over time, and Knot can counter a turn 2 play by delving a fetchland or two to give it a boost. It's far better than Mana Leak here because it does the same thing Leak does but stays live much longer. If I could play 4 I would, but unfortunately they don't play well in multiples, so 2's the minimum number. I personally play 3.
  • 1x Negate -- This card is low profile, but it catches every non-creature threat an opponent can play, and those are hardest for Esper to deal with. We're in the market for 4-5 two-mana counters to hedge against Blood Moon and combo decks (Storm and Ad Nauseam ), and Negate is pretty much the best option. Overall, though, it's truly a very solid card. A 2nd could be welcome, but isn't really necessary.

Removal

  • 4x Path to Exile -- Another one of the best control cards ever printed. Any list that's playing less than 4 is doing something wrong.
  • 4x Terminus -- This card does amazing things. It single-handedly turns a game around. However, it's dead against most blue decks, which is a price you must be willing to pay. I wouldn't play less than 4 Terminus because you won't miracle it as often if you play fewer.

Finishers

  • 3x Jace, the Mind Sculptor -- The typical card advantage engine many control lists sport. Jace is the only reason we can realistically play Terminus , and with fewer than 3 Jaces, the deck feels exceedingly clunky. Jace also allows us to beat unorthodox situations by simply decking the opponent, and can occasionally bounce an opposing creature or a friendly Snapcaster.
  • 2x Teferi, Hero of Dominaria -- One of the best control planeswalkers, if not THE best, ever printed for Modern. Teferi is another reason that Esper can be almost creatureless, since he can emblem and tuck himself for infinite draw and exile.

Thanks for looking, and don't forget to smash the +1 button for making your opponent bored!

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