Esper Control in Modern
Control decks are responsible for the most boring, grueling, and frustrating games in magic. Having been on the receiving end of the counterspell-chain more than a few times, I did not expect to ever feel the urge to be on the other side of the exchange. But times change, and I eventually got over having my white knights and erhnam djinns being counterspell’d and control magic’d (it took about 15 years), and crossed over to the dark side by sleeving up some Supreme Verdicts and Spell Snares in modern.
My control deck of choice has been Esper Draw-Go - a deck that runs just 1 or 2 nonland win conditions and is about as “pure control” as it gets in the format. While jeskai and grixis control decks have seen decent success in modern, they have the ability to burn out the opponent with a flurry of Lightning Bolts and Snapcaster Mages or get aggressive with an early Gurmag Angler or Restoration Angel. Esper control sticks to the classic control script and has one speed and one speed only: ploddingly slow.
Why would you want to play a slow deck? Turns out there’s actually more to draw-go control than just trolling or griefing your opponent. A deck like Esper Control is built to make its land drops every turn and then use all that mana to win in the late game with a resilient, well-protected threat. Most other decks are not designed to make use of 7 or more mana, so in the mid and late game their land draws are virtually dead, whereas esper’s land draw fuels its end game. And while the round timer is a real concern for control players, in general if you’ve made your 9th land drop the game is virtually over and it’s just a matter of hitting that elusive win condition and clocking the opponent down over four or five quick turns. Mirrors notwithstanding, a loss for the control deck will usually happen before turn 7 meaning that most of the round timer is accessible to the deck to put together its two wins.
What does this long-game control deck look like? My current list looks like this:
Early Game Interaction:
Turns 1-4 are where esper looks a lot worse than jeskai or grixis. The lack of lightning bolt can be felt pretty intensely when you’re forced to Path to Exile a turn 1 Goblin Guide or turn 2 Dark Confidant - allowing the opponent to apply even more pressure on the following turn with the extra mana. The problem is exacerbated by the need for every card in esper to still be a valuable draw on turns 10 and beyond - that means no Mana Leak or Thoughtseize.
Of course the deck is not without hope, it just has to get a little unorthodox and run things like Runed Halo and Logic Knot. While the halo provides a valid target for Abrupt Decay where the deck would otherwise be practically immune to it, this is a small price to pay for a 2 mana unconditional removal spell that occasionally stops multiple threats or non-creatures like Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle, Keranos, God of Storms, or Gifts Ungiven. As for Logic Knot, while it’s parasitic (i.e. weak in multiples) a single copy is excellent, as it just needs a fetchland to be a turn 2 Force Spike and later on does a very convincing Counterspell imitation with the delve.
Rounding out the early game are Spell Snare and Remand, which see common play in the format and have proven value. As the game progresses spell snare still stops a tonne of relevant cards for a single mana, and importantly helps win counterspell wars. Remand turns into a two mana cantrip in the late game, but given how great it is in the early game, having it merely cycle in the late game is more than acceptable. Occasionally esper decks will resort to copies of Condemn or Dismember, but I’ve been satisfied with Runed Halo in those spots.
Turning the Corner:
Congratulations! You’ve made it to turn 4 without dying and are now ready to start pulling ahead of your opponent. Against an aggressive deck this is where a Supreme Verdict can be lights out - nailing 2 or 3 creatures and instantly stabilizing. If there is no need for a board wipe, Esper will start flashing back Think Twice and resolving Esper Charms to pull ahead in card advantage and sculpt a hand of versatile answers while hitting every land drop to enable the end game.
Did I say esper charm? Yes - the only black card in the deck is likely to raise eyebrows. Surely it would be better to splash red instead and gain Lightning Bolt, Electrolyze and Keranos? At a glance the charm looks admittedly mediocre, but it really is the glue that holds this deck together. Two cards for 3 mana at end of turn? yes please. Mind rot at end of turn or during opponent’s draw step? Yes please. Maindeck answers to Blood Moon, Eidolon of the Great Revel, and fringe cards like Worship or Seismic Assault? Sure, why not! To the extent draw-go is the archetype you’re looking at, Esper Charm is a five-star card that does exactly the things you want for the cost you want and at the speed you want - digging for more lands and answers or shrinking the opponent’s options if you've got a full grip with sufficient answers.
Of course the ultimate stabilizer in the deck is actually Sphinx’s Revelation - 4 or more cards and life at the end of the opponent’s turn will usually secure the win, even if the game doesn’t actually end for another 10 turns or so. Relieving any pressure on your life total while also drawing a fistful of land drops and answers is very tough for most other decks in the format to overcome.
Winning the Game
Like any modern control deck with blue and white, Celestial Colonnade is the go-to win condition. Esper Control runs just 1 or 2 other ways to actually win the game - generally a singleton White Sun’s Zenith and either a Nephalia Drownyard or Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. While this means sometimes waiting to draw a way to win, or waiting to have the mana to effectively protect a colonnade, it also means you don’t get stuck looking at a hand with 3 late-game plays when you desperately need interaction or more land draws in the mid game. Being able to go over the top of most other decks in the late game without risking a handful of unplayable cards in the early game is a major advantage of Esper draw-go.
Sideboards are always touchy since it really comes down to what matchups you expect to see and wish to hedge most heavily against. In general esper draw-go wants some mix of:
Combo-stoppers: Dispel is the ideal here, as it is also great versus burn.
Variants: Gifts, Teachings, Souls
The esper colours have some other good synergies and cards to offer, and while it looks like a number of them could be dropped into this deck, I’ve found it better to just stick to one game plan and not get too cute. Some of these other options include:
While Lingering Souls may look like an obvious inclusion for an esper control deck, in the case of draw-go we’re not really in a rush to find a win condition and don’t want to draw clunky cards early on - especially sorceries. I’ve tried throwing in 1-2 copies of souls and found it unnecessary as I could have just waited and cast an Elspeth or WSZ instead and more cleanly won the game. Monastery Mentor - in addition to dying to both bolt and decay - is just not worth the effort in this deck when we can afford to play a much more expensive and resilient threat in the late game as one of our few win conditions.
The gifts ungiven package of Unburial Rites, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite, and Iona, Shield of Emeria could be squeezed in here in either the maindeck or sideboard, but taking away 5-8 slots is going to dilute the primary strategy of draw-go and lead to game losses where you miserably draw your gifts pieces into your hand early on in the game. This is not something the deck needs, so giving up the consistency is simply not worth the upside of a possible 1-card combo (EoT gifts).
Mystical Teachings on the other hand is a card that could easily be dropped into the draw-go shell and not look out of place, but in testing I found it was also just not something I needed. Being able to tutor my WSZ or Sphinx’s Revelation sounded good, or even finding a clutch Path to Exile or Spell Snare on turn 5, but in practice it was just terribly inefficient and clunky. Teachings is at its best with silver bullets and the ability to tutor up a Lightning Bolt for reach or removal, and optimizing it in draw-go just means a lot of other changes to the point that the deck looks significantly different - thus I would not recommend trying to drop it into this list.
You pretty much can’t beat a tron deck with esper control. Esper’s advantage is to hit its land drops and leave the opponent with bad/dead land draws in the late game. Tron decks are designed from top to bottom to make use of massive amounts of mana - in GR tron it culminates in a completely unstoppable Emrakul, the Aeons Torn while blue versions will get disgustingly effective Condescends with either an easily protected gifts-iona lock, gigantic Sphinx’s Revelation, or mindslaver-academy ruins lock. It’s tempting to go to maindecked Ghost Quarters and add sideboard tech like Bribery, Commandeer, or Seek to shore up these matches but the truth is you’re still probably going to lose. Since you can’t beat everything in modern, its better to just accept that tron is a loss and play something else when tron is popular. Or just do the thing in modern where you put one in the chamber and give it a spin, hoping you don’t draw your unwinnable matchup at whatever event you’ve registered for - iIf merfolk can throw in the towel against affinity and still be competitive, esper draw-go can give up the tron match.
That’s it for this week, remember if you can’t beat em you might as well bore ‘em, so get out those supreme verdicts and esper charms and see if you can’t put your next opponent to Sleep by turn 20!