Deck Spotlight: Esper Midrange/Control

To say that I was stressing out about my deck choice for SCG Milwaukee would have been an understatement.  I pre-registered for the event a few weeks earlier when I felt strongly about the Big Zoo deck I had been testing in Modern, but, as the weekend approached, the format seemed to take a different shape from what I had originally anticipated…

I knew Humans and Hollow One were expect-able to begin with but the MOCs results from the weekend prior demonstrated some of the strongest trends for any two decks we’ve seen for some time in Modern.  I had a hard time believing that my value creature deck would really be able to stand up to the speed and disruption from what seemed to be the two best decks in the format; Humans and Hollow One.

During Episode 108 of the Card Knock Life Podcast, Darrel and I discussed deck choices to attack the current Modern meta and we got on the topic of Ghostly Prison as a reasonable answer to go-wide creature decks such as the two that were so ubiquitous in MOCS top 16.  I had considered this type of option when I first faced down Hollow One with my Grixis Control deck months earlier.  Ultimately, it was this poor match-up that caused me to put the deck aside in search of something else.  Sadly, Propoganda is not legal in Modern.

I decided that whatever I played at the event, I wanted to make sure it was pro-active in nature which was the reason I had settled on Big Zoo in the first place.  It packed the value elements that made the game rewarding to me but was aggressive enough to close out games before something terrible could be cast by my opponent.  When I began to consider other options, all of the strategies that appealed to me as viable counters to Hollow One and Humans seemed to lead me back towards Control.  I settled somewhere in the middle.

Link to decklist on

While this deck is clearly listed as “Esper Control”, and yes, it does have a few counterspells packed in, I’d be inclined to call it “Esper Midrange” or “Esper Tokens” because that army of Gideons can get aggressive very quickly.

Ps. My name is spelled wrong.

Now, this deck is admittedly a little wild.  I’ll give you that.  But let me just start by addressing this stuff…

First of all, no offense taken.  The concern is valid.  This deck is seemingly a giant pile of…stuff.  Let me assure you, however, that I’ve put plenty of thought into this chaos.

This may not be the best deck choice for next weekend, and is even less likely to be the best choice in a month and a half, but for the weekend immediately following the aforementioned MOCS, it gave me the best shot of a deep run in the tournament based on the following expectations:

  • Players at the event would be bringing the Hollow One and Humans to MKE after seeing them prove themselves at the MOCS
  • Players expecting a lot of Hollow One and Humans would play control decks to attempt to beat them
  • Players would be anxious to play with their shiny new toys (Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor) in the first big Midwest event since they were unbanned

Why Esper?

I had recently been testing an Esper list designed by Shaheen Soorani (which he shared on the Facebook UWx Control Community) and decided to develop something similar that fit my needs (resulting in the list posted above).  A couple of pieces that really appealed to me included the following…

Lingering Souls

Souls fills a very important niche in a deck like this one.  While the tokens function well as blockers to protect your planeswalkers or stall until you can draw a wrath spell, they can also provide a very real clock.  Since this deck runs just three creatures total (3 x Snapcaster Mage), your opponent will likely find little use for their removal spells.  Since we’ll have to attack to win the game at some point, we might as well split the damage over four expendable bodies rather that one single threat that is susceptible to opposing removal spells.

Other incentives include discarding Lingering Souls to Liliana of the Veil or Burning Inquiry out of the Jund and Hollow One decks that I was expecting or pairing souls with with Collective Brutality for added value.

Path to Exile

Modern-legal creatures aren’t messing around these days.  In fact, there are two possible qualifiers that seem to make some of the best beaters in Modern playable: big or resilient.  Path to Exile is better than ever before as the need to deal with creatures that would survive Lightning Bolt or were bigger than Fatal Push could target seems to be at an all-time high.  Additionally, I’d need an out to recursive threats like Bloodghast and Flamewake Phoenix as soon as possible.  Path does the trick.

I was a bit concerned about the fact that I was running four copies of a removal spell that functionally ramped my opponent in the same deck that I would include Ghostly Prison in the main but I ultimately decided that this was well worth the risk and the decks that I was most concerned about in this case were running few basics to begin with.  Remember that Humans decks tend to run one basic Plains.

Fatal Push

In so many games, I felt like I needed to have a one-mana removal spell in my opener or I would be completely run over.  Including black in this list allows for eight potential one-mana removal spells to ensure an adequate response to even the most aggressive Humans starts.

My original concern with this large number of removal spells was that , though great in creature match-ups, there were certain match-ups where I would be drawing into a stack of completely dead cards.  Control mirrors, for example, would not give me many opportunities to cast Path or Push unless my opponent was animating their Celestial Colonnade.  After testing the deck for a while, I began to realize that this drawback was mitigated by the strength of the rest of the deck in these instances.  Packing six planeswalkers, two Search for Azcanta, and three Lingering Souls was enough to blow these games wide open against an opponent who would also be likely to be stock piling removal spells with no good targets.

Gideon Jura

Gideon represents exactly the type of utility I want in a deck like this.  Forcing your opponent’s creatures to attack into him so that he can pick them off next turn feels almost like we’re running a wrath spell that also has the option of functioning as a beater when the board is empty.  While I ultimately cut down on the number of Gideon Juras I decided to include in my version, I opted for something similar in a maindecked Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion.

Stony Silence

Stony has got to be one of the best things you can be doing with your sideboard in Modern.  While it doesn’t necessarily address any of the problems of the aggressive creature decks that I listed above, it does enough work in other match-ups to make up for the lack of attention devoted to them in my sideboard.  Stony is enough of a pain in the side for decks like Affinity and Lantern Control that you often win the game just by resolving one.  Your opponent may try and overcome the setback but the amount of time and energy that must be spent to do so will leave them sorely behind.

Modifications to Soorani’s List

I made a few unusual changes to Soorani’s original list that served to satisfy the needs mentioned earlier.  Notably, my planeswalker suite was changed from the orginal 4 x Jace, the Mind Sculptor and 2 x Gideon Jura to the following:

1x Gideon of the Trials

1x Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

2x Jace, the Mind Sculptor

1x Gideon Jura

1x Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

Elspeth, Sun’s Champion

I’ve heard a lot of voices disagreeing with my choice to run Elspeth, Sun’s Champion in the main but the fact of the matter is, she just wins games.  Similar to Gideon Jura, Elspeth can function as both the clean up crew and the wrecking crew all at once and is particularly effective at stopping the army of ground attackers created by a deck like Hollow One or Jund.  Against control, she is able to gum up the board in a way that overtaxes one-for-one removal and can reassemble easily after a wrath spell.  I was very happy with the choice to include Elspeth in the deck for this particular event.

Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Gideon of the Trials

All three Gideons can conveniently become a creature post wrath and happen to be very difficult for your opponent to remove.  Against white decks, you’ll need to be careful of Path to Exile as it is often worthwhile to do something else with your Gideon if your opponent has access to one white mana.

Gideon, Ally has a very relevant ‘ultimate’ in this deck and the emblem pairs very nicely with Elspeth, Sun’s Champion and Lingering Souls tokens.

Detention Sphere

I don’t leave home without it in UWx decks.  Detention Sphere is an excellent answer to opposing planeswalkers as well as a great way to exile creatures like Bloodghast or Flamewake Phoenix that don’t really care about being momentarily ‘Pushed’ into the graveyard.

Supreme Verdict, Wrath of God, Settle the Wreckage


Since Grixis Death’s Shadow has severely declined, I didn’t feel that I would miss the “can’t be countered clause” on my wrath spells.  Beyond that, the need for one blue mana in the cost of my wrath was a non-zero drawback when I was attempting to cast Logic Knots and Cryptic Commands.

Wrath and Settle provide an out to Thrun, the Last Troll, which I had been seeing in green sideboards rather frequently lately, and Settle packs the upside of exiling attackers that may have just entered the battlefield (ie. Bloodbraid Elf, Flamewake Phoenix).

Ghostly Prison

I wanted a Prison in my maindeck in hopes that I would be lucky enough to draw it in game one against the hyper aggressive creature decks of the format.  Going first is a big deal in those matches and if I can win the first game, I’d have an opportunity to be on the play twice if we reach game three.  This card did everything I wanted and more.  In fact, I was happy to cast it against Jeskai control, even, to require seven mana to be payed in order for their Celestial Colonnade to attack me.  When an Abzan player paid four mana to attack me with two Lingering Souls tokens, I knew that it was a good choice.  Remember that this will not protect your planeswalkers.  Prison says “can’t attack YOU”.  The good news is, you don’t have to remind your opponent of that fact until after the game and some players may pass on an attack, assuming they cannot swing into your Gideon.

Baneslayer Angel

Of all the sideboard choices, I was most happy with Baneslayer Angel.  When my opponent boarded for game two, they were almost always looking to cut cards like Path to Exile and Terminate from their deck after seeing nothing but Lingering Souls tokens to aim them at.  In other decks that pack maindecked threats that are susceptible to these types of removal spells, Baneslayer would likely not survive long enough to do anything.  In this deck, there is very little that your opponent will have left to deal with her in they are to board as predicted.

Baneslayer is a fantastic blocker for some of the most obnoxious creatures in Modern; Reality Smasher, Hollow One, Tasigur, Gurmag Angler and gains relevant life points when you feel the need to get aggressive.  Flying is also very important here since nearly every creature in Affinity has Flying or can’t be blocked except by Flying and, even when bearing the Cranial Plating, tends to have just one toughness that is easily taken care of with Baneslayer’s First Strike.

Tournament Results

I went 5-3 in day one of the Open, losing to Affinity in the third round.  It was one of those games where I missed my fourth land drop and my opponent casted Etched Champion and proceeded to attach a Cranial Plating to it.  Its very difficult to recover from that.  I can’t remember what my second loss was to but my third loss, I can remember quite vividly.

In round 8 I was paired against a player on 5C Good Stuff Aggro running an Ancient Ziggurat/Reflecting Pool/Gemstone Mine mana base to cast cards like Voice of Resurgence, Mantis Rider, and Siege Rhino.  Secretly, I was really impressed with the deck and would have been interested in playing it myself but in that moment, it was my job to destroy it.  I did so handily during the first game.  In the second game, my opponent went over top with consecutive Mantis Riders and even a copy of Lightning Angel.  In the third game, I was in control the entire time after resolving Detention Sphere to exile two mana dorks at once and then casting a Ghostly Prison against a collection of lands that consisted of 50% Ancient ZigguratPlease note that Ziggurat cannot be used to pay the Prison tax.  Ouch!  This limited my opponent to attacking with one creature a turn or passing that opportunity to play something and put me in a great position to win.  Eventually that one creature became Lightning Angel, which I didn’t have adequate removal for.  I did, however, have a Lingering Souls and a Gideon Jura in hand but couldn’t risk those cards getting Negated (which I’d seen earlier in the match) since I was at just 6 life.  I had to make the tough decision to animate and block with my Celestial Colonnade who promptly died due to an exalted trigger on the Angel.  My opponent tapped out for a Siege Rhino putting me to two life.  I felt like that sealed the deal for me…in a good way…as I could then cast Gideon Jura, force his creatures to attack my walker and then get in with my army of tokens for the win.  There was only one possible draw that would get my opponent out of this situation.  Guess what he drew?

Having made it to round 8 in the open with a favorable record, I was feeling very good about this deck choice and decided that I’d play the exact same list in the Classic on Sunday.  I did and my results were as follows (to the best of my memory):

Round 1: Jeskai Control (W)

Round 2: Abzan (W)

Round 3: Ponza (L)

Round 4: Scapeshift (W)

Round 5: Jeskai (W)

Round 6: UW Control (T)

Round 7: Grixis Death’s Shadow (W)

Round 8: Affinity (W)

…for a record of 6-1-1, just missing top 8 on breakers.

Playing Affinity in the last round of the classic and absolutely crushing it served as a nice book end to a tournament that began with an early loss to affinity the previous day.  This time, I felt like I was in control the whole game and cast a Baneslayer Angel to seal the deal at the end of the second round.

Both the Abzan and the Grixis Death’s Shadow match-up were an absolute breeze and I think Esper is very well-positioned against them.  Jeskai games go long, but Lingering Souls and the planeswalker suite help immensely here.  Ponza is miserable, as you may expect, and you’ve basically got to mill to find a Fatal Push in your opener or you’ll be faced with turn two Blood Moon which will make things very challenging.  Its nice to have Celestial Purge and Detention Sphere for Moon but when Ponza is casting them so early, its nearly impossible to be prepared for it.

Notable wins in the Open include Lantern Control, which seemed like a great match-up for us thanks to Stony Silence, Detention Sphere and a bunch of counterspells, and Hollow One, which I played ONCE all weekend.  I managed to avoid Tron in both events.  I would imagine this to be a difficult match-up as well.

Going Forward

I’m very happy with this list, but after playing it for 18 hours, I have some changes that I might consider.

First of all, the Mana Leak in the maindeck was always a little suspicious.  That should become a Negate.

Once that switch is made, it will free up room in the sideboard for a second copy of Ghost Quarter.

Also, I like the Gideon of the Trials but wasn’t too impressed with it over the weekend.  I think that my opinion on this may change if I were to face more Burn decks so I’m not willing to cut it yet but just know, its a consideration.  If I did, it may become another counterspell in the main or another copy of Detention Sphere.

The Settle the Wreckage in the sideboard was a little suspicious as well.  Its significantly worse when my opponent knew I had it.  Against the decks where I wanted it, my opponent either had Kitesail Freebooter or Thoughtseize or I had found Settle by activating Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin.  Because of this, I’ve considered swapping Settle in the sideboard for another copy of Supreme Verdict.  We shouldn’t have to worry about Meddling Mage blocking our wraths too much as we have seven one-mana removal spells to deal with the Meddling Mage before it becomes an issue.

I think this Esper deck is a great choice in Modern currently.  As long as creature decks are in the top tier, it will remain that way.  We’re jam-packed with removal to combat them and have a good game against the decks that are designed to prey on them.  Most importantly, this deck is ridiculously fun to play.  If you’re weary of draw/go control, which you should be in this meta, try tapping out for a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and crushing your opponent a 5/5.

Good luck!

-Corey Murphy