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Esper Control

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Control decks come in a variety of flavors. Some of them achieve victory through combos, such as Splinter Twin decks and Scapeshift decks; other control decks feature rosters of aggressive, efficiently-costed creatures, such as Grixis decks and Temur Delver decks; still others—such as Abzan and Jund—rely on attrition, drawing the game out until the opponent has run out of resources.

Then, there are the pure control decks, such as Jeskai, Cruel Control, and Esper.

And today, we’re talking about Esper, an archetype that sees very little play despite possessing unique and powerful tools that other control decks lack.

Esper Control has flavors of its own. Some players prefer a midrange control strategy using Geist of Saint Traft, Vendilion Clique, and Restoration Angel; others prefer Monastery Mentor and Lingering Souls. Delve strategies using cards like Thought Scour, Gurmag Angler, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang have proven their worth in every rendition of U/B/x control. Today, we’re going to talk about Planeswalkers.

With a suite of four Planeswalkers to out-value and outpace the opponent, each one backed by a plethora of counterspells, and the most powerful creature lands available, the long game is ours.

Remand
So, how do we get to the long game? It starts with Spell Snare, Path to Exile, Remand, and Think Twice.

Nearly every spell in Esper Control is reactive. In the early game, we’re waiting for the opponent to drop creatures to exile—or else cast Tarmogoyf, Eidolon of the Great Revel—and opposing Remands to Spell Snare. Our Spell Snares come in handy later against Snapcaster Mages, Scavenging Oozes, and other 2-drops that have backbone in the late game. Remanding a Pestermite or Deceiver Exarch to then exile later is good stuff. And if the opponent does nothing, we Think Twice on his or her end step and continue.

Esper Charm, Cryptic Command, Supreme Verdict, and Wrath of God carry us through the midgame, with Esper Charm being the signature technology of the deck. It’s an instant-speed Divination, Mind Rot, or Disenchant that will always ruin your opponent’s day. It has the added benefit of making the deck slightly more resilient to Blood Moon than other control decks, as we can easily float mana, wait for the Blood Moon to come down, and then cast Esper Charm to destroy it. Beautiful.

Cryptic Command needs very little introduction or instruction. It does everything. It’s our hard counter of choice, and the deck’s mana base is given particular consideration in light of Cryptic Command’s taxing mana cost. Tapping down the opponent’s creatures to save our Planeswalkers will also be a common play. And nothing feels better than flashing back a Cryptic Command with Snapcaster Mage. Nothing.

Supreme Verdict
Supreme Verdict and Wrath of God are our reset buttons. Wrath in particular comes in handy against a deck like Elves, which has Ezuri, Renegade Leader to regenerate its creatures, while Supreme Verdict is our no-nonsense, absolutely-positively-gonna-kill-all-your-things-despite-your-countermagic spell. It does particularly fine work against Grixis Delver decks.

Once we’ve successfully out-attritioned our opponent into the late game, Sphinx's Revelation, Mystical Teachings, and Logic Knot help to close the door. Sphinx's Revelation is a beating for most opponents, especially with Spell Snare, Remand, or Logic Knot—easily a straight Counterspell in the late game—to protect it on the stack. It’s a spell that guarantees a comeback once resolved. And finding it is easy, too—just look no further than Mystical Teachings.

While Teachings can net us any of our instants or a Snapcaster Mage, it does particular work in a deck that needs a total refuel once in a while, and that’s when tutoring up a Sphinx's Revelation is the bee’s knees—or the sphinx’s knees. Wait, no, the card says revelation. A Sphinx's Revelation. There we go.

And Mystical Teachings has an extra-fun application out of the sideboard: Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir and a big, scary creature. This is an old “combo” from Time Spiral–era Standard, but it’s a good one. Check it out:

Step 1: Cast Mystical Teachings to find Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir.

Step 2: Cast Teferi. All of our creature cards—including those in our deck—now have flash.

Step 3: Flash back Mystical Teachings to find Grave Titan.

Step 4: Cast Grave Titan. Look at your opponent and say, with a completely straight face, “I guess it’s death in form, function, and flash.” Wake up in the hospital later with a headache.

Step 5: You were forced to drop from the tournament in the Top 8 because your opponent hated your bad joke and felt compelled to do something about it.

Bummer.

Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
Teferi is a powerhouse even without Grave Titan, as he prevents a whole host of shenanigans from the opponent. Combined with Thoughtseize, the opponent is essentially on borrowed time, as he or she can’t respond to any of our spells and can’t prevent us from picking his or her hand apart. It’s worth noting, too, that Teferi prevents suspended cards from coming into play from exile on the opponent’s upkeep, as he or she can only cast spells at sorcery speed. Sorry, Ad Nauseam players.

(That’s me. I’m the Ad Nauseam player. Everything feels bad suddenly, and my Lotus Blooms have lost all of their sheen. What have I done?)

The rest of the sideboard is fairly straightforward. Rest in Peace comes in against Delve strategies and Living End. Stony Silence shuts down Affinity. Celestial Purge takes care of Liliana of the Veil, Siege Rhino, Huntmaster of the Fells, Tasigur, Gurmag Angler, and a number of other cards from Jund, Abzan, and Grixis decks. Dispel and Teferi come in against most blue decks, with Twin being a particular concern. Timely Reinforcements helps to shore up the match against Burn, though we should always be wary of Skullcrack and have Spell Snare or Dispel on hand; we can’t rely on Sphinx's Revelation to save the day when Burn can potentially close the game much faster than we can amass adequate mana.

Finally, Grave Titan is a nigh-unstoppable finisher against slower decks, especially those that ’board out their Path to Exiles and Terminates against us. I mean, we’re just a control deck, right? We couldn’t possibly cast Mystical Teachings to search for a Grave Titan, right?

That would be ridiculous.

And now, we have Planeswalkers. Each Planeswalker selected for this deck is intended to generate value or pressure the opponent’s life total and resources in frightening, must-deal-with ways. Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver comes down first and immediately ticks up to 5 loyalty, putting Ashiok out of range of everything but Gurmag Angler (which we’ve undoubtedly Path to Exile’d already). The ability to remove the opponent’s resources from the game with the possibility of stealing a creature is a big deal, and Ashiok ticks up too quickly to go unanswered. And if Ashiok ultimates, exiling the opponent’s hand and graveyard, the game is essentially over.

Narset Transcendent
Narset Transcendent is our value engine. The threat of a rebounded Path to Exile or Supreme Verdict keeps aggressive opponents at bay for up to two full combat cycles, and her starting loyalty of 6 guarantees that she’ll remain safe for quite some time. Ticking her loyalty up allows us to search for more answers . . . and more Planeswalkers. While her ultimate isn’t effective against every opponent, it will come up from time to time, especially in longer control mirrors.

Gideon Jura is our primary win condition. He can tick up and Fog the opponent for a turn, tick down and destroy a problematic creature, or go aggro and attack as a creature. In short, he does everything. It’s worth noting that Cryptic Command and Gideon work well together, as the blue instant can tap down the opponent’s team, allowing Gideon to take out one of the creatures. Gideon’s uptick ability can also Fog Splinter Twin for a turn, as the hundreds of thousands of Deceiver Exarchs are forced to attack him. If you can protect Gideon with countermagic, he will inevitably close out the game.

And if he can’t do it, Elspeth can.

Elspeth, Sun's Champion has been Standard’s champion for the past two years, and for good reason. She comes down with a high starting loyalty, generates three 1/1 Soldiers every turn, and never looks back. She protects you, herself, and her fellow Planeswalkers with ease. She can even downtick and destroy Gurmag Angler and Tasigur, if need be. If you can survive into the late game, Elspeth is a nightmare for most decks.

The mana base is your typical fare of fetch lands, shock lands, basics, a filter land, a couple check lands, and whoa, hey now, is that a Calciform Pools?

Yes, it is.

Calciform Pools
Calciform Pools is the real deal. If your opponent lets you put a few charge counters on it, you’re in business for a big Sphinx's Revelation later on down the line. Hell, you can potentially cast a Cryptic Command off one land. If that’s not value, I don’t know what is.

And then we have Celestial Colonnades and Creeping Tar Pits in abundance. The creature lands are win conditions on their own, and they guarantee our ability to close out a game in even the direst situations. Celestial Colonnade in particular works great as an attacker and blocker, as its vigilance allows us to tap it to cast Path to Exile or Spell Snare while it’s in combat. Creeping Tar Pit is the unblockable threat that our opponent’s Planeswalkers deserve—and most certainly don’t want to see right now . . . or ever.

While Esper Control isn’t the most popular control archetype, it’s only a matter of time before it makes a long-overdue showing at a major event. The tools and sheer power are there—it just needs an adept and patient pilot. Whether you’re running Planeswalkers, Tasigur, or Monastery Mentor, the deck has serious game and is definitely worth the time and investment to make it happen.

Your local Ad Nauseam player who is forever terrified of facing a Teferi,

Jimi Brady


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