A New Era: Esper Transcendent’s Evolution

Around this time last year, I was brewing an Esper Midrange/Control deck that became known as “ET”, short for Esper Transcendent. Ultimately, the deck was designed to be disruptive, proactive, resilient (especially to removal), and versatile.

I wrote my first article on this deck here on Card Knock Life.  You can read that here.

It was also featured in a few other places, which you can find on the deck’s homepage below the description: Esper Transcendent on Tapped Out.

…and in this Spike Feed video feature, Counter Magic vs Hand Disruption.

Overall, the deck showed potential, but was met with minimal success. Its most noteworthy achievement was taking 21st at GP Brisbane (piloted by Dylan Brown). Unfortunately, with Tron and Dredge in tier 1, ET fell into an unfavorable position. General consensus assessed that the deck, while viable, was designed for a different meta. It was the right idea at the wrong time.

Although I had stopped playing ET for a while, the deck sort of became a niche favorite among the Modern Esper community. To this day, I’m still asked about the deck in my Facebook groups and whether I have any updates for the current meta. My short response has been that I’ve simply moved on from ET, as I’ve been focused on BennyHillz’s UW Control. However, after coming across Japan’s Niwa Toshiharu’s 1st place (twice) ET list from May of this year, I immediately felt inclined and inspired to dive back in. I’ll delve into that shortly.

Following Dylan Brown’s 21st place (12-3) GP Brisbane performance (1 win away from Top 8, but lost in G3 to Dredge), the addition of Liliana of the Veil appeared to have been the missing piece of the design’s puzzle, providing the deck with the early pressure it needed to capitalize on its heavily disruptive angle – much like BGx. This dynamic was an improvement for ET, but I still had my reservations because the deck continued to have trouble dealing with non-creature permanents such as artifacts and planeswalkers and it had a relatively slow clock compared to other similar strategies which diminished the impact of its disruptive element (unlike Grixis Shadow, Junk/Jund, and Esper Delve/Mentor/Shadow).

That being said, ET has the ability to attack from a multitude of unexpected angles that metacentric players may not be used to facing, which can be advantageous for an experienced ET pilot, much like Jeff Hoogland’s Esper Goryo Gifts and Ari Lax’s WB Smallpox (which actually has a similar concept as ET, but a different approach).

For what it’s worth, the deck has always been a house vs Aggro, Midrange, and Control, while competent vs Burn and Combo, with Big Mana and Dredge being its toughest matchups.

Esper Transcendent Tournament Results:

Thomas I. Fulks – 1/7/17
IQ Maryland
5th
Decklist

Brandon Dempsey – 1/8/17
IQ New Holland
1st
Decklist

Sean Cain – 1/29/17
GPT Newcastle
3rd
Decklist

Bornich – 1/28/17
MTGO: 5-0
Decklist

GeistofIWin – 2/5/17
MTGO: 5-0
Decklist

SneakShowEternal – 2/6/17
MTGO: 5-0
Decklist

Ryan Powell – 2/17/17
GPT Vancouver 2017 – Last Chance Trial
5-0
Decklist

Dylan Brown – 2/19/17
GP Brisbane 2017
21st
Decklist

Andrew Grenz – 3/5/17
SCG Modern IQ – Staten Island
5th
Decklist

Raymond Miller – 3/6/17
TCG Player States – UT
8th
Decklist

Ryan Normandin – 3/7/17
TCG Player States – RI
8th
Decklist

Niwa Toshiharu – 5/2/17
1st
Decklist

Niwa Toshiharu – 5/23/17
1st
Decklist

Niwa Toshiharu’s ET

Niwa’s Decklist

Niwa’s version is a lot like Dylan’s list, but with some notable differences:

Main:

Side:

The two cards that will likely raise an eyebrow are Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver and Archangel Avacyn. While I respect Ashiok’s role here, particularly vs Grixis Shadow, Company, and Control (all variants), the deck is already favored vs those matchups, especially Control.

Avacyn, on the other hand, is an ingenious addition. I was initially perplexed by its purpose in the side, but it began to make sense as I closely evaluated the list.

Avacyn’s flash is relevant vs Combo and Control, but it can also protect your army of Souls from being swept, or flip and wipe out the field vs decks that go wide, such as Affinity and Company. Its evasion and 4/4 (or 6/5) body also makes it a viable threat vs Eldrazi Tron. Because of Souls and an abundance of removal, it’s quite easy to trigger Avacyn’s transformation.

The surprise factor is a significant element, too, especially if your opponent is lighter on removal, post-board. That being said, Baneslayer Angel is likely still superior across more relevant matchups.

A New Modern Era: ET’s Evolution

Neo7hinker’s Decklist

As you can see, I stuck closely to the tried-and-true core, but mine is closer to Dylan’s than Niwa’s. In fact, I recently caught up with Dylan and asked him if he’s updated ET since the GP, and I came to find out he bumped Tasigur, the Golden Fang to 2 and added Vendilion Clique in place of 2 Esper Charm, which he stated were a little underwhelming from his experience, but always a viable option, especially with Narset.

Ideally, I’d like to add a 2nd Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in the 75, but I’m also considering at least 1 more life gain spell (likely Blessed Alliance), 1-2 Nihil Spellbomb and/or Grafdigger’s Cage for graveyard disruption, and a 2nd Baneslayer Angel for E Tron and other grindy matchups. 

gideon

Gideon of the Trials is another solid option that I tested extensively as a 2 of in the main. He provides protection for you and your Walkers, forces over-extension into Supreme Verdict, and turns the corner as a sizable, Indestructible threat. However, there are two other 3 cmc’s that have prioritization over him here: Liliana of the Veil and Lingering Souls. These are the backbone and core of the deck. They should be a 4 of. If you’re including Trials, it should be played in addition to these, not in place of them.

Then there’s Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. He’s better than Trials here by a significant margin, especially when you have Souls on the field. Ally should have more precedence here than Trials, which is why I’d likely opt to play 2 Ally before 1 Trials.

Lastly, you have Tasigur, the Golden Fang. You can possibly replace 1 of these for Trials, but they function a bit differently. Tasigur synergizes with Collective Brutality, Lingering Souls, and Liliana of the Veil more than Gideon of the Trials does, but is also more efficient as you can cast him for 1-2 mana, on average, in this shell.

Ultimately, these factors create some friction for Trials in the main, especially since you’ll be adding yet another 3 cmc spell to a deck that really wants a smoother curve. Also, without Gideon Jura, his Emblem makes less of an impact. Simply put, Trials has a home here as a 1-2 of (with some tweaking and balancing), but it may also just be a better option out of the side, if you’re inclined to include it.

Image (30)

As for Narset Transcendent, arguably the deck’s most controversial and debated card, she’s essentially this deck’s ‘stickier’ and more synergistic Jace, Architect of Thought. Aside from generating card advantage via her first two abilities (Rebounding Lingering Souls is absurd – 6 for 1, which fuels Gideon, Ally of Zendikar), her final is a real threat vs any Control variant (particularly important since we don’t play as much draw or counters as they do), slower Combo, Tron (especially in top deck), and creature-light Midrange, such as BW Smallpox. Alongside Liliana of the Veil, she’s the backbone to the deck’s primary engine and win condition.

Narset is basically “turns” when you go to time, but on a stick. However, instead of a 5 turn clock, she only gives your opponent 4 – or they’re potentially locked out of the game, ultimately forcing concession. For instance, vs Control, it doesn’t matter what, or how much, they draw when Narset’s on the field as the virtual card advantage she provides significantly outweighs any of their outs, besides bouncing her with Cryptic Command, or Detention Sphere. With non-creature spells being the biggest threat to ET, Narset, along with Liliana, provides a powerful, proactive way to deal with them.

Notably, with Dredge’s decline and Control’s rise, Narset is even better positioned now than she was then.

For more regarding Narset’s role in ET and the powerful synergy between both Walkers, I spoke to Isaac Egan, one of Australia’s top pros, who first 5-0’d a competitive league on MTGO with Liliana + Narset in ET and trained with Dylan Brown prior to GP Brisbane, and shared his explanation here: Neo7hinker’s Twitter

“Narset is a 4 cmc Planeswalker win condition. It can be replaced with another ‘difficult to deal with’ game-winning threat like, say, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar, but the question is which has a higher win %. I’ve found the cards that Narset finds is more useful than 2/2’s that Gideon makes, as the deck doesn’t have many targets for removal spells and, therefore, the 2/2’s die. Gideon is better in a fish tank, as it wins a turn earlier, but that isn’t what happened in testing. There are probably other resilient threats that don’t die to removal and provide card advantage, but Narset was the best that I could find.”

Needless to say, ET wouldn’t be the same without them. In Dylan’s words “You can’t fight both if you have nothing to fight with.” 

Isaac and Dylan’s most valuable advice, which has also contributed to my growth as a designer and player, is to not worry about having answers to problems G1, as they may not even exist, especially in Modern’s wide and varied meta. Don’t gun for anything in particular. Instead, focus on it being the best deck it can be, to execute what it wants to be doing, consistently and optimally, regardless of what deck you’re up against. Then shore up the concerns and weaker matchups in the side. Assess and adapt.

This discipline and understanding is one of the reasons why Dylan ended up 12-3 at GP Brisbane with ET.

Possible Innovations

If you’re looking for tech in Hour of Devastation, the set has 1 card that may be worth testing:

Liliana’s Defeat is a highly efficient way to deal with large threats like Tasigur and Angler, while also being able to hit Shadow and Liliana. ET is already favored vs Grixis Shadow, but it’s an option in the side as a more versatile Fatal Push without leaning on Path to Exile.

Based on my experience, the following 10 spells are worth considering in the SB if you’re looking to make some revisions:

 ceremonious Image (26)  Image Image (1) halo Image (18) Image (31) Image (17)

(These cards are subject to change as my list is updated. Please refer to the link below the deck image for the latest updates)

Honorable Mentions: Anguished Unmaking, Hero’s Downfall, Flaying Tendrils, Timely Reinforcements, and Batterskull.

Note: If you’re interested, I also put together the following guide for effectively utilizing Esper Charm: Utilizing Esper Charm.

Transcending the Meta

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Overall, ET has proven to be very focused, balanced, and truly better than it’s ever been. The deck generates a lot of virtual card advantage from various angles, it’s oppressive, but can also turn the corner quickly, and it covers a lot of ground in this meta. It’s a complex 75 with many decision trees and lines of play that rewards proper sequencing, utilization of phases, tight play, and meta knowledge.

Average Ratios (Pre/Post-Board) vs Tier 1 & 2:

Note: Ratios will vary based on sideboard configuration.

(Tier 1)

UBx Shadow: 60/40
Affinity: 60/40
Eldrazi Tron: 45/55
Burn: 50/50
Gifts Storm: 60/40
TitanShift: 45/55
UW Control: 65/35

(Tier 2)

GWx Company: 50/50
Abzan: 70/30
Jeskai Control (All): 60/40
Death & Taxes (All): 50/50
Bant Eldrazi: 50/50
Gx Tron: 45/55
Merfolk: 55/45
BGx Death’s Shadow: 65/35
Lantern Control: 45/55
Dredge: 35/65
Sun & Moon: 55/45
Living End: 40/60

BennyHillz, known for his MTGO success with UW Control, described ET as a “miserable matchup” for Control (all variants), particularly UW. He thinks the deck is “insanely well-positioned” if Control continues to grow in popularity and top tier representation.

Truth be told, with Control’s rise to the top and Shadow pushing out Goyf/Jund while keeping Tron in check (arguably the deck’s #1 menace, followed closely by Dredge) ET is more relevant, flexible, adaptable, and well-positioned now than it ever has been.

To the skeptics, make no mistake – this is not just another “Goyf-less Jund/Junk”, and it’s no longer in their shadow.

ET’s concept and identity has been fully realized and actualized.

Now it’s time to get out there and transcend the meta.

Above all else, thank you, Death’s Shadow. It wouldn’t have been the same without you.

-Francesco Neo Amati

Francesco Neo Amati, better known as Neo 7hinker, specializes in UWx Midrange/Control and metagaming in Modern. He is also the progenitor of the Modern UWx Control/Midrange community on Facebook and is the creator of the Esper Transcendent deck.

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