Esper Control Follow-Up

First off, let me just stay, thanks for sticking with us.  As you are likely aware, we’ve been dealing with some website issues lately and I am hopeful that we’re finally in the clear.  There may be some minor construction going on as we are still not 100% yet so please pardon some minor functionality issues, specifically mobile compatibility issues, but expect things to return to normal very soon.  Our new page theme brings some new features as well as being “really, really ridiculously good-looking”.  The first one is obvious-the latest podcast episode will now appear at the top of the home screen.  Beyond that, we’ve added a much more functional menu to the top of the page and the ability to search by author through our articles archive.  If you like someone’s work or want to find other articles that they’ve written on similar topics, simply click on the author’s name in the post preview.  Success!!

Now, let’s get to Esper…

After finishing ninth at the SCG Classic in April with Esper Control, I posted a write-up about the deck here on Card Knock Life.  I wanted to check in today to share some recent changes to the deck as I continue to tune it.

Corey’s Esper Control [May 2018 Update]

Creatures (3)
Snapcaster Mage

Planeswalkers (5)
Teferi, Hero of Dominaria
Gideon of the Trials
Gideon, Ally of Zendikar
Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Spells (27)
Detention Sphere
Timely Reinforcements
Cryptic Command
Fatal Push
Logic Knot
Path to Exile
Search for Azcanta
Lingering Souls
Serum Visions
Supreme Verdict
Wrath of God
Lands (25)
Celestial Colonnade
Field of Ruin
Flooded Strand
Godless Shrine
Hallowed Fountain
Marsh Flats
Polluted Delta
Watery Grave

Sideboard (15)
Engineered Explosives
Baneslayer Angel
Stony Silence
Celestial Purge
Ceremonious Rejection
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Settle the Wreckage
Surgical Extraction
Vendilion Clique
Collective Brutality
Timely Reinforcements

For reference, my original list looked like this: Corey’s Esper Control – 9th Place SCG Classic MKE


Yes, I’m buying into the Teferi-hype.

Initially, wanted so badly to play Teferi at my local events that I forced a copy into my deck despite not thinking it was a good fit for Esper.  I reached the conclusion that because Teferi untapped lands at my end step, I would need to be more of a ‘draw-go’ style of deck to properly utilize that mana.  What I failed to realize at the time was that in order for the mana to be tapped in the first place, you have to do something during your turn.  Duh!

Now, its not untrue that Teferi shines when you’ve got instant-speed spells to cash in on his untap clause, but it turns out that playing a proactive strategy that involves Lingering Souls, Search for Azcanta, and other planeswalkers is the perfect way to find value in an ability that lets you untap lands.  This Esper control deck is PACKED with sorcery-speed plays that are typically too risky to cast until you’ve got two or more spare mana to spend on Logic Knot, Fatal Push, Path to Exile, etc.

Let me illustrate that point with some of the most intriguing examples I’ve come across…

  • Turn five vs. a creature deck: I want to drop a Planeswalker to advance my board-state but I can’t commit to tapping out when I am worried about a hastey Mantis Rider attacking in and killing me.  Cast Teferi, activate his “+1”, and hold up mana for one of seven one-mana removal spells that we’ve packed.  Or even better, two!
  • Cryptic Command is expensive, but well-worth the cost as Counterspell is extremely versatile and ‘tapping the team’ is a fantastic way to protect our ‘super friends’.  Typically, saving four mana for a Cryptic means that you will be left with little proactive options on your turn but Teferi on turn seven allows for you not only to find the quantity of mana needed to do this, but also to untap the blue sources that Cryptic is so hungry for.
  • Lingering Souls is a three-mana spell that is played in the deck primarily as protection for your planeswalkers.  For that reason it is often cast before a walker.  Conveniently, the two-mana flashback cost can later be used as an effective use of two mana that Teferi will untap with his “+1”.

And that’s just the first ability!

I would admit that Teferi’s “-3” is no replacement for Detention Sphere as the benefits of removing all copies of Flamewake Phoenix in one shot are just too great, but having two other spells in the deck that can deal with difficult-to-remove problems in similar ways are a major plus.  I realized this value as I squared off against an Emrakul/Polymorph deck the other day.  This deck aims to put Emrakul, the Aeons Torn into play by Polymorphing a goblin token created by Dragon Fodder.  Emrakul does not have haste in this situation, however, most decks don’t have a way of dealing with it once resolved due to the “protection from colored spells” clause.  With Detention Sphere, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and wrath effects in the main, I’ve got a ridiculous number of options for dealing with this spaghetti monster.

Admittedly, this deck is quite fringe and only meant as an example of some versatile problem solving that Teferi can provide.  Having this type of option in the deck is such a valuable utility knife that I could write this entire post on what it can provide for a deck like Esper Control.

Lastly, the ultimate is game-winning.  Because of this, I’ve decided to enlist the help of Teferi in favor of Gideon Jura and one copy of Jace, the Mind Sculptor in this deck.  Big Gideon previously provided its own usefulness in the form of a five-cmc clean-up crew and win condition all in one.  I found that, once animated, it often became the target of the removal that my opponent had been stockpiling in their hand and its removal functions were only useful in dealing with creatures which this deck already was poised to deal with.  In the case of Jace, the promise of card advantage was quite real and even a four-mana Brainstorm effect and functional Fog when my opponent committed their attackers to it in the next turn was just fine for the cost I paid.  Teferi seems to provide the same quantity of card advantage as Jace (with less selection of course) and similar end-game potential as Gideon, but does so in a way that makes him a much harder target for my opponent.

I could gush about Teferi for 3,000 more words but I think I’d better get to the rest of the changes.  Just know that this card is, no-doubt, Modern-playable.  Like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, it impresses in a deck that is built with its strengths in mind and can’t merely be thrown into any UWx build.  I think the Jeskai Control players are on to something with their inclusion of Tef in a Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix deck and the UW Miracles decks packing Opt and Terminus along with Teferi seem appealing too.

Though I wasn’t having issues with my curve prior to this change, I felt like Tron was appearing more and more.  Every time it did, I was reminded that this match-up was potentially very miserable.  Elspeth, Sun’s Champion is a great card and hasn’t been removed entirely, just relegated to the sideboard.  I originally included Elspeth because I was expecting droves of Jund.  As the metagame has settled post-Jace/BBE unban, I’m finding that I’m more frequently in need of either more mana or more big mana disruption.  Field of Ruin is a fantastic card that does a lot of things very well.  I consider it well-worth the risk of drawing multiples in this three-color manabase.  In fact, I use this land aggressively against decks that I expect to be packing Blood Moon in order to find my own basic lands or to color-fix my manabase when it is necessary.

This one is pretty minor: another concession to the presence of Tron, but also, a way to deal with combo decks more effectively without needing to spend any mana.  As an added-benefit, this spell works quite a bit better with my own Snapcaster Mages and is often pretty game-breaking when I am able to flash one back.

Reluctantly, I’ve cut Ghostly Prison from the deck entirely.  I spent quite a bit of time in my last Esper Control article talking up how great this was as a surprise one-of in the deck but, after further testing, I’m finding that Timely Reinforcements not only provided similar function against the matches where I wanted Prison, but also did great work in other match-ups (like Burn) and was much better at protecting my planeswalkers.  I’ve replaced Prison in the main with one Timely but kept the second copy in the sideboard.  I don’t see why this isn’t maindecked in more lists.  I can think of few match-ups where it just does nothing and whenever it is good, it over-performs.

Simply put, Mana Leak is not very useful right now.  In games where I’d want it to counter an early creature spell, I’m already favored based on the plethora of removal I have access to.  Negate does so much more against the spells that my removal can’t touch and is, like Timely Reinforcements, live against so many decks.  I can only name Humans as a spot where I wouldn’t want to see Negate and I’ve still never lost a match to Humans with this deck.

The Negate was moved from the sideboard which made room for Elspeth, Sun’s Champion who was previously in the main.

Assessment of Esper Control in Modern of Spring 2018

I’d be happy to be paired against any of these eight archetypes.  In fact, I’d consider the two most present decks, Humans and Affinity, strong underdogs in our match.  I’ve built control with Jund and Hollow one in mind and our suite of planeswalkers, Lingering Souls, and Search for Azcanta are sure to keep the Jeskai players honest.  Though, the aforementioned Tron does not appear in the eight most-played decks based on finishes, it will always have a strong presence in the Modern metagame and ought to be acknowledged.

I’m confident that this latest version of Esper Control packs enough versatility and power to compete with the best of them in this environment.  Beyond that, its incredibly satisfying to play.  Take it for a spin and share your thoughts below.  I’m eager to hear your constructive feedback and will keep everyone posted on upcoming changes and results with the list.