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August 26, 2016

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Revisiting Esper Control

A few months ago the Shadows over Innistrad  banlist update painted a bright future for Esper Control in Modern. The Eye of Ugin ban heralded the end of Tron’s dreaded Emrakul end-game, and the release of Ancestral Vision and Sword of the Meek offered some new tools to the archetype.

The Tron matchup certainly improved as a result, as Emrakul has mostly been replaced by Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Ulamog’s cast trigger usually hits two lands against Esper, which is backbreaking on turn four or five but gets exponentially less problematic as the game goes on. Eye of Ugin has given way to Sanctum of Ugin – and to no-one’s surprise a single conditional tutor is nothing compared to a free threat every turn for the remainder of the game. I would still not call Tron a favourable matchup, but it is no longer depressingly unwinnable.

On the other hand, neither Sword nor Vision has sparked the Esper revolution. Sword has actually failed to make much of an impact at all on the top tiers, while Vision is mostly seen in the new Jeskai Nahiri deck (i.e. where Emrakul went after Tron). While Esper as a whole hasn’t made any major gains in the modern metagme, the Draw-Go archetype has seen some recent innovation worth noting.  Some of the most promising new developments are:

Secure the Wastes

At a glance this might look like a downgrade or lateral move from White Sun’s Zenith. I know I was skeptical at first, but a few test games in and the power of switching to the Dragons of Tarkir rare became apparent. Sure, Zenith puts more power on the board at every mana cost above five, but whether it’s seven warriors or five cats odds are you’re going to win if the spell resolves and you untap. And sure, Zenith reshuffles to give you another look should you need it to close out the game, but Secure the Wastes can be hit later on by Snapcaster Mage should you need a second wave of tokens.

On the other hand, casting Secure the Wastes below five mana is far more effective than Zenith, and not needing triple white is important when you need to cast it early (not to mention if you have Ulamog eating your lands). Firing off cheap instant speed tokens provides a number of angles for the deck: :

  • Providing a turn 3 Fog against aggro until you can Supreme Verdict
  • Flash blocking as a pseudo-removal spell – particularly against things like a Dark Confidant,  Young Pyromancer and his minions, or an unflipped Delver of Secrets
  • Putting an early two or three damage clock out to force the opponent to interact
  • Pressuring an opponent’s planeswalkers in the mid game
  • Putting a late game clock on the board without fully tapping out

The switch requires a few modest concessions – adding a third Snapcaster Mage, and playing two copies of Secure to ensure you don’t have to regret casting one early on. While the 1/1 warriors are technically more vulnerable than the 2/2 cats, they line up a lot better against Lightning Bolts and Terminates and I would not worry much about Izzet Staticaster or Orzhov Pontiff as a draw-go player.

Spell Burst

A counterspell that meets the Esper requirement of being relevant in both the early and late game (sorry Mana Leak). On the play a Spell Burst can snipe a Mox Opal on turn one or a Goblin Guide on turn two; in the mid game it will counter just about anything at almost neutral tempo and in the late game it can do serious work with Buyback. While savvy players won’t walk into the Buyback more than once, forcing them to stockpile threats in hand walks right into the discard mode of Esper Charm and the general Esper plan of flashing in threats or drawing cards on turns where interaction is not required. Spell Burst often ends its life as a bad Cancel , but the flexibility it provides up until that point is excellent.

Reflecting Pool

Until recently I had only seen Reflecting Pool played in Cruel Ultimatum decks, but its made its way up to a pretty standard singleton in Esper Control. With 26 lands the card is almost always a hassle-free Glacial Fortress, and just generally helps avoids excessive fetch/shock damage versus aggressive decks. I would note that as a tri-land its value is mediocre, since the deck has very few black cards and no double-black mana requirements and Pool only makes black if you already have one black source. It can come up in some sideboarded matchups if you want to Thoughtseize and Esper Charm on the same turn, but that’s about it. I’ve actually been far more impressed with this card in my Temur Eternal Command deck where there’s a requirement of triple blue, double green, and double red as early as turn four, but its a very low opportunity cost to play it in Esper as well.

Blessed Alliance

I’m less sold on this one personally, but some players swear by it and will go so far as to play a pair in the maindeck and another copy in the sideboard. It is noteworthy as an out to both Bogles with Totem Armor and Thrun, the Last Troll. It is also quite good against the Infect deck as it dodges both Apostle’s Blessing and Vines of Vastwood (beware of Spell Pierce though). In most other scenarios it’s a two mana relatively unconditional removal spell that can also retroactively counter a Boros Charm or save you when you’re about to take a lethal Bolt. I don’t think you Escalate it very often as the risk of Atarka’s Command or Skullcrack would be a pretty huge blowout, but at five mana with Spell Snare backup, or later in a game where you’re low on life, I can see putting four mana into it.

Where does all of this leave the deck? There is certainly no consensus on the best starting sixty – in fact these new additions have probably led to even more variations of the maindeck. Currently I am running the following:

Esper Draw-Go

Creatures (3)
Snapcaster Mage

Spells (31)
Blessed Alliance
Cryptic Command
Esper Charm
Logic Knot
Negate
Path to Exile
Runed Halo
Secure the Wastes
Spell Burst
Spell Snare
Sphinx’s Revelation
Supreme Verdict
Think Twice

Lands (26)
Celestial Colonnade
Drowned Catacomb
Flooded Strand
Ghost Quarter
Glacial Fortress
Hallowed Fountain
Island
Mystic Gate
Plains
Polluted Delta
Reflecting Pool
Swamp
Watery Grave

Sideboard (15)
Baneslayer Angel
Blood Baron of Vizkopa
Celestial Purge
Detention Sphere
Dispel
Elspeth, Sun’s Champion
Engineered Explosives
Nihil Spellbomb
Runed Halo
Stony Silence
Surgical Extraction
Thoughtseize
Vendilion Clique

The sideboard is mutable, but one important concession with these changes is that you give up Rest in Peace in favour of other types of graveyard hate. The 3rd Snapcaster Mage and 2nd Logic Knot make it just a bit too painful to exile your own graveyard for the game. My picks are the Spellbomb and Surgical, but Leyline of the Void, Tormod’s Crypt and Relic of Progenitus are also options. Beyond that, it’s the usual mix of cards to shore up matches against fast decks and combo decks.

Until next time good luck with your own durdling, and here’s hoping for that Innocent Blood reprint in the next visit to Innistrad!