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Adapting Esper


There is a way in which I almost want to stop myself from writing this article, but write it I must...

Esper feels like it has started to exist as background noise rather than a major player, but I think it actually has a ton of potential right now. The metagame has really been shoved around by the new top decks, but with a bit of adaptation, I think Esper has the tools to fight and win.

I'm loathe to say these things largely because of one reason:

Esper beats up a lot of the decks I enjoy playing. It is an absolute nightmare for my Gates deck, for example, but that's just one of many. Pretty much the only decks I have that feel good against it are decks like George (Mono-Blue Curios Obsession) and maybe Simic/Sultai Flash.

With Esper playing "fun police" to all the things I most enjoy, bolstering the deck makes me grit my teeth a bit, but, I can't help but call it like I see it: with a few changes, this deck has the tools.

The Metagame

Right now, I feel as though the core of the metagame is the powerhouse that is Scapeshift pressed up against the aggressive power of Vampires. Yes, there are other decks that matter, such as Feather Aggro or Simic Nexus, but Scapeshift and Vampires define the ends of the spectrum.

The Scapeshift deck(s) are powerful in their inevitability. They are resilient and effective at doing their primary job of making a billion zombies for the win, oftentimes at end step because of the power of Teferi, Time Raveler. Attempting to disrupt these decks needs to be combined by a fairly quick clock or it can easily go awry. For a more classic Esper deck, this will usually mean doom because if you aren't directly aiming to fight Scapeshift, they can just outgrind you via the simple playing of lands or the natural advantage

This winning deck from Chris Anderson is only two spells different in the main from the earlier Grand Prix Denver winning deck from local hero and international beloved Magic player Luis Scott-Vargas. Chris's deck, recognizing the existence of other Scapeshift decks after the events of Denver wisely uses Time Wipe rather than Prison Realm as a stronger play for the mirror.

Here is Anderson's deck:

This deck has twelve antagonistic cards for Esper in Game 1, four copies each of Teferi, Time Raveler, Field of the Dead, and Hydroid Krasis, and then the potential "one-card" knockout of Scapeshift. Veil of Summer and Dovin's Veto are a potent means of pushing around Esper, and Deputy of Detention is serviceable, but in spite of this, they don't have so many weapons that this is a lock on the matchup. They aren't actually designed to fight a sustained war against a properly situated control deck.

By way of example, this is one of my current builds of Nicol Control:

This deck has a ton of natural weapons against Esper. It is designed to fight a protracted game. And despite that, it usually gets pushed over by the steady stream of card advantage that comes out of the combination of Planeswalkers that an Esper deck runs. While Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria have a fairly similar effect on games, there are just more card advantage sources available in Esper than in my Nicol deck, and I haven't been able to fit in more and still feel like the Nicol deck is reasonable against other decks.

So, with less naturally antagonistic cards than my Nicol deck, why has Scapeshift been pushing Esper around?

A big part of it is that the Scapeshift deck only needs a moment of weakness in the Esper deck to take over. Cast a Scapeshift, and even if Esper stops it, the overwhelming follow up of Zombies is just too much. In addition, if even a single Teferi, Time Raveler sits out for a little while, that could be it, in pure combo fashion. Hell, even one of my favorite control players and deck maestros, Greg Orange, didn't play a single way to stop a Teferi from hitting play other than discard.

You hit me, I hit you. Esper, largely in response to the Mono-Red Aggro menace, moved entirely away from countermagic.

Well, Mono-Red Aggro may exist, but not in the numbers we're used to, and with nowhere near the success we've been used to.

The new powerhouse in pure aggro is defnitely bw Vampires.

I really love the look of this deck, and I'm not surprised that a deck this aggressive and resilient was able to beat much more middle-of-the-road decks in the Top 8 before being felled by another aggro deck, the slower but comborific Boros Feather deck in a heartbreaking Game 3. Emma's deck has a low curve that scales up with numerous draws, but can certainly fight a long game should it come to that, either with Planeswalkers, card draw, or pure resilience in numerous hard-to-handle cards.

Against most other creature decks, this deck is a monster because of the dastardly combination of low curve, hard-hitting creatures, deathtouch, and lifelink. It takes something special from another aggro-leaning deck to beat something like this. I wasn't able to watch the finals matchup, but I would be unsurprised if Emma's losses came from either being on the wrong side of variance or champion Schiaveto doing something cruel with Dreadhorde Arcanist or Feather, the Redeemed.

From the perspective of a control deck, Vampires doesn't offer as much in the way of a fearful end-game, in large part because the reach in the deck is minimal. Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord is capable of getting in three damage and Sanctum Seeker can likewise get in some amount of surprise damage - but, really, in that case, no more than a Legion Lieutenant from the perspective of a creatureless control deck. Traditionally, a card like Adanto Vanguard would also be on the list of real problems for a control deck, but fortunately, there's a card that has started to see some play that can solve Adanto Vanguard, and incidentally be decent against Field of the Dead. In fact, you might have noticed that both Emma and I are playing a single copy of the card in our main decks.

Legion's End

Legion's End is one part of the solution to the metagame. It is such an incredibly mana-efficient card against both the most aggressive deck in the format and such a wildly different deck like Scapeshift.

The other reality is that, without such ready access to reach like the burn in a Red Aggro deck, Vampires is more vulnerable to countermagic. This is, importantly, a weakness of the Scapeshift deck in any game that Teferi, Time Raveler isn't out.

This makes fighting Teferi, Time Raveler incredibly important. To that end, a suite of countermagic that is cheap needs to be a part of the fight; I learned from playing George that four or so dedicated spells for that fight is necessary. In Esper, this is readily available in a solid mix of cheap countermagic, supplemented by more expensive counters and also the power of Thought Erasure. To add even more in this fight, I want access to The Elderspell.

Of course, this does mean you don't want to let the shields down as much. Teferi, Time Raveler and Narset, Parter of the Veils are important cards, but they can only really afford to be played at the barest minimum. To me, this is two copies each. In addition, if you're planning on being untapped a lot, and you have a greater number of conditional spells, and you have countermagic as a part of the plan, suddenly a powerful grinding tool becomes apparent as an impressive weapon: Chemister's Insight.

Put it all together, and you have this:

First of all, I know - that's 61 cards. It also has a ton of singletons.

This ended up happening quite by accident. I built the deck and then discovered that I didn't have a finisher in the deck other than using Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to deck my opponent. That isn't unacceptable, but it is excruciating, and it can easily lead to your eyes falling out of your skull. Given that I was already including The Elderspell, I put in my third-favorite The Elderspell-recipient, Liliana, Dreadhorde General. Technically, you don't need Liliana in the deck, but it might give you some extra sanity points. Certainly, I'd like to push the deck back into being a sixty, but I'm not certain what to cut to make that happen; in cases like that, it makes more sense to play 61 until you can figure out the proper cut, and so I'm sharing with you exactly where I'm at with the deck currently.

The sideboard has some of my favorite options in Standard right now. The most exciting cruel play I've made against Scapeshift so far has got to be playing Fall of the Thran and Ashiok, Dream Render together. I wish I had been streaming that game, because I was cackling like a villain in a cheesy movie.

Currently, my least favorite card in the sideboard is Unmoored Ego, which I'm not certain is necessary, but can be an effective way to stop Scapeshift, Nexus, and other narrow decks. The reason I'm not a huge fan of it is the inherent card disadvantage, the potential for it to be less useful in sideboarded games because of diverse game plans in sideboarded games, and the strategic issue of making such a mana-intensive play in a counterspell heavy deck against decks that could very well just Veil of Summer in response. I'm heavily considering replacing them with some combination of Tale's End, Aether Gust, Disdainful Stroke, or even a Commence the Endgame! (That last card choice might just be because I spent a few hours discussing Avengers: Endgame with my first friend, Christopher, who I met when I was three.)

I don't know why I've been so resistant to just embracing the dark side with Esper. It can do some things I naturally enjoy, most importantly creating demoralizing games where the opponent doesn't get to have their fun. I think as much as I enjoy that role, I really just want to be casting exciting, big spells right now, and one thing that Esper Control doesn't do is much in the way of "splashy", other than The Elderspell on Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Liliana, Dreadhorde General. Meanwhile, Star of Extinction is out there, and whispering my name, especially now that actual-factual Dinosaurs are a semi-popular deck.

Counterspells. Legion's End. One-of, Fun-ofs. Chemister's Insight.

That's the basic recipe for what I think Esper needs to do. The specific details are going to change from week-to-week as the metagame shifts this way and that, but if you want to play a classic control deck, now is the time to start saying "no" to your opponents.

At least until Throne of Eldraine shows up.


- Adrian Sullivan

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