Four Tournaments with Esper Control
Back in early November I wrote an article on Esper Control, a deck I had good early success with and that seemed both consistent and effective. I’ve now played the deck in four separate 4-round tournaments putting up a total of 10 wins, 4 losses and 2 draws, hopefully an indication that this is a legitimate tier 2 modern deck. For those curious about the effectiveness of Esper control in modern, I’d like to provide some quick notes on how those 16 matches played out.
But first, my current decklist, which looks very similar to the one I posted in November:
Esper Draw-Go Control
Out: Shadow of Doubt, In: Peek
Shadow of Doubt simply did not provide enough value, as it was way too often just cycling for two mana with no effect. In the worst cases I could not even cycle for two without letting my opponent Strip Mine me with their Ghost Quarter, and in the usual value scenario where you Sinkhole and cantrip against a fetchland activation, the tempo gain was moot as Esper is a long-game deck that doesn't hesitate to cast Path to Exile in the first place and has no real interest in early game land destruction. Peek has proven a solid addition, since it always cycles for half the cost of shadow and always (hellbent notwithstanding) gives information. Seeing your opponent’s hand often lets you know if it’s safe to go for a big spell (zenith, revelation, elspeth) or to hit them with a flurry of Esper Charms.
Out: Nephalia Drownyard, In: Shambling Vent
Nephalia Drownyard proved way too slow as a win condition, as by the time I had shrunk my opponent’s library by a meaningful amount I could just as easily be swinging with Celestial Colonnades or resolving a White Sun’s Zenith for a faster clock, which both also leverage any damage the opponent has done to themselves with their mana base or phyrexian mana spells. Shambling Vent has not blown me away, but having another way to claw back some life points can be very relevant against Lightning Bolt decks when you stabilize at less than 5 life and still have to respect Skullcrack effects crippling your one-shot life gain effects.
The sideboard is also still in a high state of flux as there are a lot of options for the deck and it takes time to sort out which ones are pulling their weight in the matchups you need them for. I have given up two slots to pure anti-tron cards in Commandeer and Mindbreak Trap, but have yet to draw either in the matchup to know if they’re actually reliably game-changing enough to deserve those spots. It is generally more common to play something like Thoughtseize or Vendilion Clique in these spots as they have other applications as well - but in my experience you must stop the Emrakul, the Aeons Torn + Eye of Ugin loop to be able to win the long game (which is the only game esper plays).
So without further delay, here are the match summaries:
October 29th: 2-1-1 (7th of 20)
Round 1: 2-0 win vs Grixis Twin
Notes were sketchy for this one. Grixis midrange decks - twin or otherwise - are pretty favourable for Esper. Supreme Verdict keeps any beatdown plan under control which also limits the strength of bolt-snap-bolt. As the game goes late Esper can more effectively use its land drops and pull ahead in card advantage. As I recall this matchup followed that script, in game two I was grinding it out with Colonnades when he resolved a Blood Moon - although with 4 basic lands out this was a speed bump rather than a real problem, Esper Charm eventually showed up and the Colonnade beatdown resumed.
Round 2: 1-2 loss vs Ad Nauseum
Game 1: One of those crazy games where you just have to shrug your shoulders (or shake your fist) at variance. He played a turn 2 Pentad Prism and a turn 3 Phyrexian Unlife. I have two esper charms and he has 4 cards in hand, meaning I can either destroy the unlife to maybe delay his combo, or use both while he’s tapped out to put him into topdeck mode. I go for the discard 4 option. The end-of-turn charm sees him bin an Ad Nauseam and land. I untap and hit him with the second charm - he casts Pact of Negation, untaps, and with 3 lands and a prism casts Ad Nauseam to win on turn 4 with the pact trigger on the stack and no cards left in hand.
Game 3: we spend a lot of turns sculpting hands. On the critical turn I’ve got Snapcaster Mage, Spell Snare, and a Negate for interaction with a Cryptic Command in the graveyard - he casts Silence which I negate, and then a second silence which I snap-negate leaving me with a spell snare in hand while he combos off. Lesson learned: silence is very good in this matchup.
Round 3: 1-1-1 draw vs Temur Twin
Game 1: Very grindy but I stabilize and make land drops to the point where I can swing and defend with a colonnade while still keeping up a counterspell (i.e. 12 mana). It feels inevitable but a lot of extra turns go by where a Deceiver Exarch or Bounding Krasis flash in and tap down the Colonnade after I activate, but in the end the Colonnade does get there.
Game 2: Where I learned I have a lot of work to do on sideboarding choices. I boarded out a revelation and a pair of verdicts and proceeded to die to death-by-a-thousand cuts from Grim Lavamancer and Deceiver Exarch. Lived the dream of Runed Halo on Keranos, God of Storms, but sadly it wasn’t enough.
Game 3: Due to the grindy first two games we’ve got just 3 minutes left so I’m obviously playing for the draw whereas he can easily combo off with Splinter Twin in that time and win. I play strictly around not losing to the combo and as a result end turn five with just 5 life - a draw is a draw.
Round 4: 2-0 win vs Naya Zoo
Game 1: Another “live the dream” scenario as he plays turn 1 Wild Nacatl and when he cracks his turn 2 fetchland I hit him with the Shadow of Doubt: Sinkhole mode! He plays a Kird Ape, I runed halo the nacatl, he plays a second land and a Qasali Pridemage, I Supreme Verdict - from there it’s some counterspells, cantrips, a revelation for 4 and then a zenith for 5 and the game.
Game 2: He has a slow start with tapped shockland turn 1, then a Nacatl missing second land drop, then turn 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben which is actually a bit of a problem - a problem that gets exacerbated by two Goblin Guides on turn 4. I stem the bleeding with a turn 4 Timely Reinforcements, then slam a turn 5 Baneslayer Angel that sadly trades with Thalia + Lightning Bolt (I had to choose whether to play around bolt or Ghor-Clan Rampager, and chose to play around rampager and ensure I get the Thalia off the table). I then supreme verdict into Elspeth, into a 7 point revelation (charged up by a 4-counter Calciform Pools) and that’s that.
November 12th: 3-1 (2nd of 11)
Round 1: 2-0 win vs Grixis Faeries
Game 2: This one comes down to two specific counterspell wars a few turns apart - the first is when I have 8 mana and go for Night of Souls' Betrayal - I have Negate and two Spell Snare in hand against his 5 untapped lands. He goes for Cryptic Command, which I negate, which he counters with Dispel. Feels bad, but a few turns later i go for Rest in Peace and the two snares come back to haunt him blocking a Spellstutter Sprite and then a Snapcaster Mage. Without his graveyard value engine its cruise control to victory.
Round 2: 2-1 win vs Grixis Delver
Game one: Yep, more grixis, and the story is the same - except when you find a way to lose, like say responding to turn 1 delver with turn 2 Runed Halo naming “Delver of Secrets”. Turns out the card you actually care about is called Insectile Aberration. Well that’s 9 damage I didn’t need to take - oops, lesson learned!
Game two: Confirmed once again that Rest in Peace is really good against the snap/command engine and the black delve creatures - particularly when resolving on turn 2.
Game three: I have a fistful of Dispels and Spell Snares but miss a couple land drops - I verdict a delver and snapcaster, at which point he casts Gurmag Angler with two mana up. I’ve been struggling to hit the land to cast and protect a threat, so when I rip my 6th land I decide to go for the Blood Baron of Vizkopa and hope dispel or spell snare are enough to protect it - he has no answer it turns out. Next turn I rip the 7th land and add a Baneslayer Angel which also goes unanswered and the zombie fish looks on in disgust as lifelinkers crash through for the easy win.
Round 3: 2-0 win vs bogles
Game one: he mulligans to 5 and I counterspell his first three creatures with Spell Snare, Logic Knot, and Cryptic Command. He sits on a fistful of auras until I cast a decent-sized White Sun’s Zenith and ride the cats to victory.
Game two: I have Runed Halo in my opener and am hoping he has not boarded in any enchantment removal since he didn’t see the halos in game 1. He casts a turn 1 Gladecover Scout and I let him suit it up on turn 2 and 3 before dropping the halo and crossing my fingers. Whether he has enchantment removal in his deck or not he does not draw an answer for the halo - he attempts to get a second threat online by fetching a Dryad Arbor and putting a totem armor on it, but Path to Exile deals with that before it starts. Some cantrips and counterspells happen and 7 or 8 turns later in come the victory cats.
Round 4: 0-2 loss vs GR tron
Game one: I negate his t3 Karn Liberated, then Path-Snap-Path his t4 and t5 Wurmcoil Engines - I Peek and see a hand of two lands which gives me a glimmer of hope that I might actually win this thing. The problem is his pair of Ghost Quarters locking down my Colonnades, which means I am at the mercy of drawing an Elspeth or zenith to apply pressure. It takes too long and he draws into Eye of Ugin and does that thing that Esper Control players loathe - casting Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.
Game two: I Spell Snare his Sylvan Scrying, Negate his Expedition Map, and then Snap-negate his second map - he’s on 4 lands no tron, but I’m also missing land drops so once again can’t apply any actual pressure. We pass some turns back and forth until I hit the 6th land and cast my Elspeth, this time the glimmer of hope winks out almost immediately as he in turn topdecks Sylvan Scrying and tutors up the missing tron piece and casts a Wurmcoil Engine.I path the engine and swing with tokens, snap, and Colonnade dropping him to 9 life - but he untaps and casts Ugin, the Spirit Dragon with -6 to crush my entire board, while untapped Ghost Quarter means Colonnade can neither race nor kill the ugin. I do eventually draw my Bribery, but he follows Ugin up with Karn Liberated so there is no point in even trying to steal his Emrakul. Just to emphasize the point he ultimates the Ugin and then hard casts the Emrakul himself. Confirmed bribery is not the right bullet for GR tron.
November 19th: 2-1-1 (5th of 14)
Round 1: 0-2 loss vs affinity
Game one: His first turn is Blinkmoth Nexus, two Ornithopters, Springleaf Drum, and Signal Pest followed by a turn 2 Master of Etherium. I path the master, but then proceed to draw all counterspells and cantrips and the turn 1 army just straight up beats me down until I die. Bit of bad luck to not hit a path/halo/verdict/snapcaster after turn 2.
Game two: Much slower start for him with turn 1 Vault Skirge turn two Steel Overseer - I wait until turn 4 and then cast and use Engineered Explosives for two. He draws dead for several turns in a row and just beats at me with the 2/2 blinkmoth as I cantrip and make land drops. I Mystical Teachings for a Sphinx’s Revelation, and then punt by casting an Esper Charm in discard mode during his draw step (3 cards in hand) allowing him to resolve an uncontested Blood Moon. I ghost quarter my own land leaving me with a blue and white mana, but I never find the third basic I need to either a) esper charm the moon, b) cast a giant revelation or c) cast verdict to kill Etched Champion and pals that eventually kill me.
Round 2: 2-0 win vs grixis control
I’ve more or less stopped taking notes on this matchup, it is extremely favourable for Esper and barring a god draw from grixis, an esper punt or a mulligan into oblivion should be an easy win for the blue-white-black player.
Round 3: 2-0 win vs puresteel paladin storm
Game one: It takes a while for me to figure out what he’s doing, only becoming clear when he transmutes a Muddle the Mixture for a Puresteel Paladin. With Spell Snare, Path to Exile, and Cryptic Command in hand there is no way he’s getting this through and I eventually lay an Elspeth and march the soldiers to victory.
Game two: He fails to draw any paladins and literally does nothing until the final turn where he attempts to play 5 artifacts, Retract them, and then Grapeshot - I’m not sure he could have even dealt lethal, but I countered the retract just to be safe. A 6 point grapeshot makes no difference to the outcome.
Round 4: 1-1-1 draw vs living end
Game one: In an absurd sequence of events I draw no counterspells to stop his Living Ends. This becomes especially embarrassing when he suspends the second AND third copies having drawn them into his hand. Fulminator Mage does a tonne of work with three reanimate cycles, nuking 6 total lands over the course of the game, but honestly a single Remand , Negate, Logic Knot, or Cryptic Command and this is a victory. Damn you variance.
Game two: I decide to play my Rest in Peace on turn 2 and risk him having Simian Spirit Guide and Beast Within rather than risk him cascading in response to a turn 3 RiP - he does not have it and without a graveyard this is a pretty easy win.
Game three: He keeps a one lander and cycles three Street Wraiths on turn 1 - then misses land drop on turn 2. I decide to play Runed Halo on street wraith to optimize my mana usage, but it becomes moot when I play a turn 4 Rest in Peace backed up by dispel exiling all 4 wraiths. Despite 7 cycles and 2 drawn cards he still hasn’t hit his 2nd land - but is at 12 life from the quadruple street wraith action. I decide to go for it and send in the colonnade dropping him to 8 - he finally rips a land and uses a spirit guide to cast a Fulminator Mage while I look at my uncastable Cryptic Command in disgust. He fulminators the colonnade and I fail to draw another win condition for the rest of the round timer. No way he can win this one, but the clock is a real thing.
December 3rd: 3-1 (2nd of 9)
Round 1: 2-0 win vs BW Midrange (“Deadguy Ale”)
Game one: I’m on the draw and have the Spell Snare for his Tidehollow Sculler. Turn 3 he casts Lingering Souls, I pass turn and he flashes it back - I untap and play Runed Halo naming spirit - (which it turns out is not a legal play since “spirit” isn’t a card name - but neither of us knew this at the time). This is kind of a big deal as many turns pass as I cantrip and make land drops while his spirits look on in disgust. I Zenith for 7, trading 4 of my cats for his 4 tokens (Vault of the Archangel OP). I then Revelation for 7 and re-draw the zenith but he scoops to the rev anyways.
Game two: I mulligan to 6 and keep Supreme Verdict, Blood Baron of Vizkopa and 4 lands. He casts turn 1 Duress hitting the verdict, and follows up with a turn 2 Pack Rat - unfortunately for him I’ve drawn an Engineered Explosives off the top that comes down for 2 and keeps the rat in check. I decide to risk Thoughtseize and sandbag the baron until I can get a counterspell or body to go with it to protect from Liliana of the Veil - the chips fall incredibly favourably as he casts an Inquisition of Kozilek which I turn into a whiff by responding with Celestial Purge on his rat. He untaps and plays a new rat, and then next turn casts another inqusition which I again turn into a whiff by flashing in a snapcaster and flahing back purge on the new rat. With snapcaster down I untap and go for the Blood Baron - who Snapcaster and Shambling Vent protect from any Liliana action and thus predictably cruises to victory against the black/white deck.
Round 2: 0-2 loss vs GR Tron
Game one: he plays into turn 3 tron turn 4 Karn Liberated - I survive something like 7 Karn activations, pathing two wurmcoils and an Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre but I’m bleeding lands to the karn and have no realistic hope of winning. Eventually Eye of Ugin gets my good buddy Emrakul with me on 3 lands and that’s that.
Game two: I bring in the Mindbreak Trap (Emrakul) and Commandeer (t3 karn) as my anti-tron bullets. I see neither and while he doesn’t get tron up until turn 4 I am not playing a deck that remotely punishes him for a slow tron assembly. He takes his time tutoring for multiple Urza’s Tower and eventually the Eye of Ugin - aforementioned close pal Emrakul comes down, so I Cryptic Command x2 to tap him for two turns as I pray to draw Mindbreak Trap, Ghost Quarter, or Rest in Peace - none of said prayers are answered and when I verdict the spaghetti monster he just eyes it up again and that’s the game.
Round 3: 2-1 win vs Grixis Delver
Game one: T1 delver T2 blind flip (so annoying). I Peek and see he has Terminate, Deprive, Gurmag Angler, and Thought Scour - so I slow roll the verdict for an extra turn hoping he’ll cast the scour into the angler, but he doesn’t bite. I wrath the delver, the angler knocks me down to 1 life before I finally path it and while it looks like I might turn things around a Forked Bolt puts me out of my misery.
Game two: T1 delver T2 blind flip (still annoying). I have the Path to Exile this time so I don’t take crazy insect beats, but he still whittles me down to 10 life with snapcaster and burn. He casts a second delver and then flips it revealing Forked Bolt and drops me to 5. I untap and decide to make my move by tapping out for Runed Halo on the insectile and an Elspeth making 3 tokens to wall the Snapcaster. He swings delver into the elspeth and uses the forked bolt to finish her off, but I then untap and start climbing back up in life with a Shambling Vent and manage to stabilize and win.
Game three: He taps out for a Young Pyromancer allowing me to tap out for a Rest in Peace. Supreme Verdict cleans up the pyro and his minions while RiP cripples all of his value cards and I just grind him out from there with card advantage and manlands.
Round 4: 2-1 win vs Burn
Game 1: He mulligans down to 5 and proceeds to dump his entire hand by turn 3 - fortunately I have two Path to Exile so I survive the flurry of one mana burn and one drops at 5 life. I play conservatively trying to ensure I don’t get burned out off the top, but he still sneaks in a Lightning Bolt dropping me to 2. On the fateful turn he has one card in hand - draws and casts Boros Charm which I Logic Knot - I’m either dead to his last card or he’s dead to my Colonnade+Snapcaster - he passes turn and I swing, he reveals land in hand.
Game 2: I mull to six and keep a very sketchy hand of Runed Halo, Think Twice, Logic Knot, Baneslayer Angel, Sphinx's Revelation, and Hallowed Fountain. I have the scry and 2 draws to hit my second land which will enable both halo and knot, and if I make it to 5 baneslayer+revelation should win the game - unfortunately he goes t1 nacatl, t2 eidolon, t3 Monastery Swiftspear + Atarka’s Command while my second land ends up being a Calciform Pools. Probably should never keep a hand without a path or spell snare in this matchup.
Game 3: He has a slow start with nothing turn 1 and then a nacatl, which I pin down with a halo. I miss a land drop but manage to stay in the game with a Celestial Purge on his Eidolon of the Great Revel and a Negate on his Boros Charm. He plays a swiftspear and gets me below 10, but I then slam a Baneslayer Angel and he does not have anything to prevent the lifegain as I clock him in 3 turns with the former walletslayer.
And there you have it - lots of beating up on grixis, lots of losing to GR tron, a couple god draws for me and a couple god draws for my opponents, a punt here and a punt there. The best thing about Esper is that aside from GR tron every matchup seems winnable - there are lots of versatile answers in the deck and you usually get to interact and build towards your end game. Definitely an interactive deck that feels significantly less vulnerable to variance than most decks.
Until next time, may Ugin and his annoying eyeball keep to themselves and the only loops you see be made of fruit!