Is Esper Expired?
'I have a Orzhov... I have Azorious... Unh! Esper Control!'
In my last article, we had a great conversation about the current status of black/white control in Standard. Well, I talked, you let my voice and words invade your brain space (I'm inside your heaaad). Today, we're going to talk about another colour combo that has been suspiciously absent from standard for some time - Esper.
As you may know, the term 'Esper' orignally stems from the Alara block. The plane of Alara was seperated into 5 'shards', each representing a tri-colour combo. The names of each shard were Bant, Naya, Grixis, Jund, and finally Esper. Each has gone on to be synonomous with its respective colour combo, especially so in modern.
Another plane famous for its tri-colour pairings is Tarkir, with it's cycle being Temur, Mardu, Jeskai, Sultai, and Abzan. Well, at least it had tri-colour pairings until The Doctor- I mean, Sarkhan Unbroken travelled back in time and irrevocably altered the timeline and broke the tri-colour pairings into dual-colour pairings. Or did he unbreak the dual colour pairings by removing the third colour? Food for thought.
We've already seen Grixis control in Standard, and Bant has been lingering about since Collected Company rotated out. Temur, Mardu, and Jeskai are everywhere right now, representing the emerge, Aetherworks Marvel, and control archetypes respectively.
But where is Esper?
On paper, it seems like the archetype has everything it would need to have a slew of good control brews, but we've yet to see a definitive list make any real waves. Why not? How come? What pieces does it have? Who am I? Why doesn't my father love me? Will I ever be truly happy?
...Let's try to answer some of those questions, starting with the 'what pieces does it have'. We'll save the last two for my shrink.
Esper, of course, is the tri-colour pairing of Blue with Black and White, making our work here pretty easy. White/Blue has already shown us what pieces it has to offer Standard, and so has Black/White. In theory, all we have to do is push the archetypes together until a new creation pops out of the middle.
Key black pieces for this list, at least as far as I'm concerned, are as follows:
Black magic does a lot of things, but it does two things really well - it murders things, and it lets you use your life total as a resource in a way that other colours do not. Liliana, the Last Hope and Ob Nixilis Reignited are both removal spells on sticks with ultimates that will win you the game if they go off. Grasp of Darkness and Blighted Fen are some of my favourite removal sources in Standard, and they'll certainly make this list.
Live Fast was almost Painful Truths, but ultimately what made the decision was one key factor - Mana fixing. Aether Hub is ridiculous good, with its only drawback being that it only generates a single energy on its own. Live Fast in this list basically turns Aether Hub into Arcane Sanctum, and that's worth drawing one less card and losing one less life in my opinion.
Key white pieces for this list in my opinion would be:
White magic is generally about protecting you, and it can do so both defensively and offensively as evidenced by these picks. Gideon, Ally of Zendikar has been the king of standard for some time now, notoriously pooping out knights on turn four and swinging for a to of damage every turn there after. Blessed Alliance will serve double duty here, acting as removal that works around hexproof/indestructible and helping restore some of the life we'll lose from Painful Truths and Ob Nixilis Reignited. Cataclysmic Gearhulk is still my board wipe of choice in standard, and I will run it over Fumigate every time - but if you choose to do the opposite based on your playstyle, that's totally fine too. We just can't be friends, that's all.
Declaration in Stone and Stasis Snare have shown their worth time and time again, helping eliminate everything from Emrakul, the Promised End to Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. They're practically auto-includes in my mind, but the double white requirement on Stasis Snare may prove too difficult to cast consistently. Only time will tell.
Because Blue is basically the splash for this list, you'll notice that several of these pieces are multi-colour cards that just happen to have blue in their CMC.
Blue just wants you to be happy, and tries to do so by giving you a billion cards. It's also super vindictive, and just kind of undoes the hard work other players do by bouncing, tapping, and countering anything and everything. Torrential Gearhulk is godly good. It will top out our curve, and serve to recycle other spells when and as needed. Jace, Unraveler of Secrets is essentially a less angry version of Ob Nixilis Reignited, doing very similar things at a very similar cost. Dovin Baan actually has more in common with Liliana, the Last Hope than he does with Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. His '+' protects himself and you by weakening your opponents threats, he generates card advantage with his '-', and his ultimate will more or less win you the game if you manage to get his emblem.
Void Shatter and Anticipate are basically staples of any blue/white list in Standard right now, and for good reason. Void Shatter is a counter spell that is relatively efficient that helps stall Delirium, and Anticipate is an instant-speed dig spell that lets you go three cards deep for the card you need at instant speed. Spell Queller and Reflector Mage both get honourable mentions here, and will likely end up in the sideboard.
Now that we have an idea of our pieces, let's take a look at what the whole puzzle could look like:
The plan to win here is the same as it always has been with Orzhov control; get your side of the field full of planeswalkers, and keep the other side of the field as empty as possible. If you can get any of your planeswalkers to use their ultimate ability, you probably win the game. Since aggro is such a pervasive archetype right now, game 1 will likely be a breeze against anything but a control mirror. The difference between this list and an Orzhov list (besides the color blue) is how much easier of a time you'll have getting the cards you need when you need them.
Cataclysmic Gearhulk gives you the ability to slam the door shut on an opponent who is trying to recover from the painful shenanigans they've tried to live through on the previous turns, or help you suddenly turn the tables or stabilize by flashing in and either drawing cards, killing a creature, or exiling a planeswalker - all while rocking one of the bigger non-titanic bodies in standard.
Jace, Unraveler of Secrets operates in a functionally similar way to Ob Nixilis Reignited, but lets you dig a little deeper and can deal with certain threats that the Demon-walker can't - like Ormendahl, Profane Prince. They conveniently share a converted mana cost, and both draw cards on their '+' ability, and the emblem on either one of them is pretty likely to lead to victory.
The sideboard is admittedly not an easy one to navigate, but has served me well across several games so far. If the enemy continues to overload the board in such a way that you are unable to deal with it, or you just can't quite seem to deal with those darn Bristling Hydra, then boarding in a couple of Fumigate is the way to go.
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet is basically an auto-sideboard against a lot of creature heavy lists, especially ones that run Haunted Dead and the like. Paired with your oodles of removal spells, you'll have an army of zombies in very short order.
For the control mirror, Void Shatter, Spell Queller, and Transgress the Mind can all replace removal spells and will essentially let you play the same game with different targets; by that, I mean that you won't have to change the way you play the deck, you'll just switch gears from focusing on killing creatures to killing spells.
Can Esper exist in this Standard meta game? Or is it doomed to lie dormant until we return to a shard-aligned plane? Join me in sleeving up an Esper brew this week and FNM, and let's find out!
Stay tuned for a follow up article next week!